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This data visualization of the ex-boyfriends in one woman's inbox wrecked my whole day

The ghosts of emails past

Lam Thuy Vo

"Forget me nots" is a collection of simple visualizations of one woman's emails from ex-boyfriends, represented by number and not by length, content, or importance. The data paints a tidy but obviously incomplete portrait of five different relationships. It shows what data visualizations usually show — a whisper of a bigger story.

It's the first installment in Wall Street Journal data journalist Lam Thuy Vo's "Quantified Selfie" series, through which she hopes to use data to explore human identity.

quantified selfie

Quantified Selfie / Lam Thuy Vo

I do most of my internet-ing at work, so it makes sense that I do a lot of my feeling here too. At the mere suggestion that I revisit former romantic interests in the furthest reaches of my own ".edu" Gmail account and Facebook Messenger archives, I was ready to sacrifice 20 minutes to the task (the task of content!) — a 20 minutes which quickly became an hour. And then three. It seemed like a logical use of time.

Vo likens dipping your toe into the digital records of your romantic past to peering into Pandora's Box. It starts out fun — for the first few minutes all the experience really made me feel was the urge to call up everyone I had ever cared about and let bygones be bygones, and go get a beer. At first what I stumbled across and felt pained by was uncomfortable only in the way that seeing photos from one's childhood in which you are slightly too old to be naked are uncomfortable. Or as Vo says, "It starts as an innocuous search driven by curiosity and has the potential of ending in emotional doom and gloom."

Once I started I couldn't stop, of course. I covered my mouth in horror, but I didn't cry!

Maureen O'Connor's excellent 2013 essay on digitally catalogued memories hesitates to say that escaping exes is impossible in the modern age. Rather, this is a time when it is so, so much easier to succumb to the twisted temptation to revisit them: "Ex relationships run on lust and impulse and nosiness and envy alternating with fantasy. It's a dozen soap operas playing at the same time on a dozen different screens, and you are the star of them all."

It's like Pandora's Box, except you know exactly what you're doing

The idea of drunkenly internet-stalking a former flame and "what might have been"-ing your night away is already a painfully cliché one. The sanitized reduction of people to data points is what's alien about this smart and timely project. It silences the "soap operas" to a degree, but raises a whole slew of other weird and intrusive questions.

Do I really want dozens of screenshots of disses from dumb dudes on my desktop? Did I really turn a bunch of people into Excel sheets on my Vox Media Google Docs account? Am I lunatic? On second thought — whatever. Wow, this old so-and-so really left a highly quotable record of himself. He is great content.

quantified selfie

Quantified Selfie / Lam Thuy Vo

"We have gone from a default of forgetting to a default of digitally assisted remembering," says Vo. But her subject, "Allison," claims this happens only when something triggers the impulse — a glass of wine, an ex's Facebook status, an inbox search gone awry.

Maybe that's true for Allison, but I personally am a narcissist nearly all of the time. There are no specific, required circumstances for reveling in a backlog which is as thrilling to me as it would be rote to anyone who else who read it. In fact, I would do it at work.

Please email me if you want to see a pie chart of gendered slurs I have been called by boys who I have emailed more than two poems to.