Notes on Past Selves & My Abandoned Digital Spaces

Neon Boneyard shadows

Since reading Sarah Wanenchak’s Cyborgology post on abandoned digital space, I’ve been thinking about the digital spaces I have forgotten or deliberately abandoned, that sit and collect dust, like my first blog on Diaryland. I started writing entries on Diaryland in 2002, and in 2006 I decided I needed a platform that was more professional. For a reason I can’t remember, I could not delete my Diaryland account back then, so I password-protected it.

I then moved on to Typepad, and later to Blogger, and finally to WordPress. For a long while, I forgot about Diaryland and my vault of memories.

As the name suggests, Diaryland was more a diary than a blog; only a handful of my friends read my writing, unedited and uncensored. But to be honest, I’ve never written anything here as raw or bold. In those years I didn’t think about (and wasn’t yet concerned about) topics of identity and persona and privacy, but when I realized my name could be Googled and the diary was searchable, I began to write less there and instead posted more polished blog entries on my MySpace profile, through which I had begun to craft a digital presence with a literary voice. In the fall of 2006, I shifted away from Diaryland so I could shape myself in public, and to get in the habit of writing for others.

Wanenchak writes that abandoned digital space is empty and static, “frozen at that last point at which something was done to it.” After reading her piece I decided to take a peek at Diaryland. Typing that site’s password was like inserting a vintage key into a rusty lock, and I was led to my last entry, dated October 6, 2006. Typical of my entries there, it is very long—much longer than anything I’ve written here. In this final post, which I did not know would be the final post, I wrote about juxtaposition and paradox in regard to my time in Thailand; about the financial and emotional instability of Twixters, a term used at that time to describe my age group stuck in between adolescence and adulthood; and my struggle to complete the last third of the book I was writing at the time.

In that manuscript, I really wanted to explore my relationship to technology, but that book was not supposed to be about technology, but about other things. I did not—I could not—see this then, and only realize this now as I return to a section of this final diary entry:

I’m struggling because technology is the major thread tying all of my chapters together, whether I’m here in the Bay Area, in Montreal, in Bangkok, or anywhere else, or whether I’m 17, 21, 24, or 27. At some points in my life, technology—which encompasses all kinds of things, from an iPod to a washing machine, or from a turntable to the English alphabet—has been a positive force in my life. In other parts, it has been negative. I keep going back and forth and am trying to figure out what my “stance” is, so to speak, but each experience makes the presence of technology more ambiguous as I write and recall more experiences from my past. And, looking at how the younger generations deal with the influx of these tools, as I keep observing in my classrooms more and more, I wonder if, in the long run, these advanced resources available to our culture are truly beneficial or not. I feel almost sorry for these kids because they were born into this Internet and tech age. This is the only kind of life and pace that they know, while I think we were and are the last generation conscious of a division and difference between two drastically distinct worlds, and have the ability to choose what we would like to adopt, and what we don’t.

That makes me cringe, and I thought to edit out some of it. But I’ve left it alone. A part of me is bothered by these abandoned digital spaces, floating about with detailed, unfiltered records of my past selves. Of my curiosity, of my naïveté, of my growth. But these frozen spaces, and this online diary in particular, are rich personal archives. It’s wonderful to be able to revisit a moment where I was on to something, and to catch a glimpse of my future interests.

Yet it’s trendy to forget: to (try to) erase one’s traces online, or to use apps that simulate the act of forgetting, like Snapchat, which allows you to control the lifespan of an image. I now wonder if it is unnatural to return to and remember such detailed moments of my past, and am also reminded of a Kernel piece on digital memory that describes how it is much easier today to remember than to forget—how we have GMail archives we can search to conjure up conversations we have forgotten, and Facebook Timeline to sift for dates and events and birthdays we wouldn’t normally recall.

Yet rereading these online entries isn’t any different from, say, sifting through my hardbound journals, right?

Ultimately, I like what Wanenchak says about these abandoned digital spaces: they are time capsules, acting as snapshots of our own past.

* * * * *

I got married this week, and I’ve decided to change my name. I signed up for a GMail account with my new name for when or if I decide to make the account switch, and also edited the name associated with my Twitter account to see what it looked like. But I wasn’t used to seeing my name written that way, so I changed it back, and I realize that not only is changing my name a big deal, but updating my name on my various digital profiles is a big step, too. Since those years on Diaryland and numerous blogs and social media sites later, I’ve shaped my self—my appearance, personality, voice, and whatever else that entails—and linked an evolving public identity to my name.

So I’ve thought about what digital spaces I’ll update with this name change, and which ones I may leave alone, and why I choose to make this distinction. I updated my name on Facebook—minus the reaction I had after updating my Twitter account—which makes me wonder about the identities maintained on each of these networks, the distinct spheres of my Internet, and the different levels of public.

Why does a name change make more sense on one digital space, but not another?

I’m not quite sure.

* * * * *

It’s interesting to think how updating a profile with my new name permits the present to continue flowing through it, while not updating my name on another profile instantly dates it: places it on a timeline, transforms it into a snapshot of a past moment. It will become, as Wanenchak writes, “a place in which the future has simply never happened.”

So what would my digital footprint look like in the future, with these black holes of data scattered on the Internet, as if I was forever single on some spaces, and yet married and aged in others?

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

35 thoughts on “Notes on Past Selves & My Abandoned Digital Spaces

  1. This made me smile. Thank you for sharing. How interesting to think of our past selves as captured in the digital world. We will continue to grow so how many of “us will be out there”? And why I wonder is it so meaningful to start fresh instead of evolve the one account, the one name, the one page. I imagine that after some time my blog may change, my purpose will change, I will want to learn something new.. and I haven’t started yet! So now I think would it be better to have a new page when the time comes or add a new tab?

  2. Interesting what you say about the book, that it was supposed to be about something else but you couldn’t see it back then. I sometimes read my old diaries, wondering who this person is that speaks to me through the pages. I’m a bit of a yoga nerd and when I did my teacher training the instructor asked how we know it’s us when looking at old photos.
    Every cell of our body would have renewed itself meanwhile, from baby to adult, we change our appearance and our way of thinking. So what is it, this thing that defines ourself? What remains the same throughout life? Browsing old online and paper copy identities makes me feel that there’s a connection.
    Thanks so much for this post, even though I’ve just come across it now.


    1. So what is it, this thing that defines ourself? What remains the same throughout life?

      I love these questions. And I don’t quite know the answers, but you’ve made me think. When I browse the old “copies” of myself, I’m disconnected, yes, yet there’s always that connection — a deep, innate connection.

      Lovely thoughts here — thanks.

  3. Cheri, I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject lately, and I’m so glad I stumbled onto your post. You’ve given me a lot more to chew on here. I find it fascinating how these digital spaces are like a time capsule, for better or for worse. I think about how many times I’ve wanted to log into some old account and delete it, but there’s something in my pack-rat nature that won’t allow me to do it just yet. I guess eventually the companies will go out of business or clean out their servers or whatever. Sometimes I think about people who have passed away, and what happens to their digital space – kind of a morbid thing to ponder, but I’ve noticed a trend in how people will still visit these profiles on certain sites and it becomes almost a memorial space where loved ones keep sharing. Sorry, that diverges from your post quite a bit – I’m still forming a lot of thoughts on the subject, but I wanted to say how much I enjoyed hearing your thoughts. Thanks!

        1. I’m glad you could relate to these two posts — when I write about some of these things, especially death and my urge to control (as in the digital life after death post) — I often think I’m either uptight or overthinking something. So, glad to know you liked these.

  4. I appreciate your writing and you bring up some interesting points. And I know you may not now agree with what you’ve written in 2006 but I politely disagree with this intriguing quote –

    “I feel almost sorry for these kids because they were born into this Internet and tech age. This is the only kind of life and pace that they know, while I think we were and are the last generation conscious of a division and difference between two drastically distinct worlds, and have the ability to choose what we would like to adopt, and what we don’t.”

    I think if you ask any human throughout the ages they would say the same thing. As you mentioned yourself, the English alphabet is a techne (and this is pretty old!). Our lives are drastically different than those of paupers in the mid 19th century (of which we are incredibly unaware). Perhaps this awareness of the gap between ourselves and those that came before us is a luxury that we can afford. With the spread of knowledge (via the internet) this luxury will become more affordable and hence people may become even more aware of the divide. I think this awareness will only increase and people yearn for their natural beginnings as we slip further and further into the digital void.

    1. Oh no, I don’t agree with what I wrote — and cringe! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here.

      “I think if you ask any human throughout the ages they would say the same thing.” << This. You're absolutely right on.

      Thanks for visiting.

  5. Your article touches on some great ideas about the digital self as a much more comprehensive archive of identity than analogue models. There’s a wicked insightful talk about this subject by Amber Case, called “We Are All Cyborgs Now.” Check it out, yo.

  6. As a teacher, it’s obvious that many students don’t worry about the digital footprint they are perpetually creating–after all, it’s what they do, what they have grown up with.
    Loved the analogy of the rusty key with the old passwords. Would I even be able to log in to MySpace nowadays?
    Have you read the book Delete that mentioned in your linked article? What’s most compelling to me is that it can be a healthy, natural process to forget many things. I also wonder if digital tech. is transforming the idea of memory for better or worse.
    Great post!

    1. Really like the insight from a teacher re: younger students. I have not read Delete, but I do love how you say forgetting is a natural, healthy process. With online spaces and our shared public memories, things are changing for sure.

  7. Incredible writing. Its always beautiful to go back to your past memories and thinking about that time which was part of life, which you enjoyed with everyone present at that time. We rarely do these things, but its beautiful feeling. 🙂

  8. changing. Well, as you know, I have done it a few times 🙂 and not that I don’t believe in it, but I must say that after thinking about the ritual of it for some years, I know now that the act of name changing has effects that are see-able and some that are not. I took my 3rd husband’s name after 5 years of marriage, and yet didn’t change anything legally for a much longer time. I cannot name all the reasons why. But to me it was a bigger step than saying I do.

    1. Yes, Sharon, I realize it *is* a big step! And in a time where I’m facing a computer screen for much of the day, seeing my name plastered on various online profiles, the “effect” is obvious and reminder is constant. Not a bad thing at all — just something I notice all the time!

  9. Really related to this. I, too, have password-protected digital spaces that are second homes for me. Congrats on the marriage too.

  10. There’s one thing I’ve learned from writers who write online and writing online myself. It is that you can only truly settle down to put forth your best work only after tumultuous rounds of switching accounts and re-inventing yourself. It’s a great learning experience actually! So I could relate to your journey(if I may say so) of writing on the net too!

    And I wish you all happiness on your marriage! 🙂

  11. I very much enjoyed reading and thinking about your post. I don’t think, though, that we look back at different selves. This compulsion to make sense of the world around us is an ongoing task. I’m sitting here in my study with a shelf of previous journals of who I was at 20, 30, etc. I’m 61 now. On and on it goes. That inner dialogue is essential, and of course key when describing my life now. ( I knew that recording those dreams, no matter how crazed, would pay off ultimately!) Anyway, I think that there is a tendency to somehow diminish digital photos, music, blogs, whatever . . . because it’s just so easy to produce comparatively. It doesn’t matter though how you create something, because it’s much more important to actually do it; to have that internal dialogue and reflect.

    1. I like your thoughts about how we sometimes may see digital creations as less meaningful. And you’re right — it’s important to have this internal dialogue, and I’m grateful to look back on these entries…

  12. This is an incredibly compelling post. I rarely go back to read entries (online or in print journals), but when I do, it’s an interesting look at that space/time and where I was. And like bottledworder, I don’t see them as black holes – would you have been able to write this piece (or any of your others) without that step? We can’t change where we’ve been, but they can definitely be used as lessons.

    I’ve had an online presence of some sort since 1996, so it’s been interesting to think about what those were, as opposed to where I am now. Thank you for this reminder, this look, and the thoughts that are rattling around my brain now. 🙂

    1. You’re right — I may not have written this piece without these entries. Thanks for your thoughts and glad you identified with this post!

  13. Beautiful. When I read through the excerpts from your archives, I didn’t think they were black holes or time capsules at all. I thought a lot of those represented our continued struggle to adapt to changing modes of writing and thinking facilitated by technology–the details have morphed of course–but the past puts our present concerns in relief. Also, a lot of people in different parts of the world (outside the so called first world) are still going through these same struggles even as we speak.

    1. A continued struggle, yes. I like how you’ve sort of suggested that these archives are necessary steps of something larger, rather than simply as time capsules or stagnant bits.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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