This week on Why’d You Push That Button, we’ve been hypnotized by the romance of New York in December and we’re acting accordingly! Twinkle lights, snow banks, and love letters. I recommend listening with a cup of hot chocolate or a bucket of that popcorn that has the little paper dividers between the three flavors. Get cozy; hold hands.
The big question: how do you decide to delete or save text threads from friends, family, or significant others? If you have 3GB of texts from an ex, you’re never actually going to scroll back to the beginning, so why can it feel so hard to let go? If you have absolutely no old texts on your phone, what is wrong with you, just wondering?
How do you decide to delete or save text threads from friends, family, or significant others?
This episode was inspired by Maureen O’Connor’s 2013 New York Magazine essay “All My Exes Live in Texts,” which I am obsessed with, and in which she argues that we struggle to let go of old relationships' digital artifacts because they represent “a dozen soap operas playing at the same time on a dozen different screens, and you are the star of them all.” Wow! A little cynical, but at least 100 percent true if you’re being honest with yourself.
To get some alternative angles on this topic, we spoke to freelance writer and former Racked shopping and style editor Nicola Fumo, who has a complicated system for saving and curating the messages she cares about. (This system was inspired by the one, the only Kim Kardashian West.) Then we called up my college boyfriend Sean, and the two of us had a weird little moment that was ultimately fine. He also explained how deleting texts makes for stilted friendships and missed plans.
Finally, we took all of our questions to Michelle Janning, a professor of sociology at Whitman College who’s dedicated her career to studying the differences between digital and physical communication, with a particular focus on how we decide what to save, how to save it, and when to look back at it. Her book, Love Letters: Saving Romance in the Digital Age, will be out sometime in 2018. She had so much wisdom to share and we couldn’t believe she was real.
Listen to the full podcast and check out the transcription of Michelle’s interview below.
Ashley Carman: Can you tell us a little bit about this book? You also did a study around this topic, so can you explain to us the book you're writing and what it's about and the work you've been doing in this area?
Michelle Janning: Yeah, absolutely. I was inspired by my own saving of past communications from friends and boyfriends and others, and talking to people who are younger than I am, enough to do a survey project where we ask people — this was in 2013 — ask people all sorts of questions about their love letters. Not necessarily what was in them, but their ... what we call curatorial practices. You know, like you curate an art exhibit or something. Where they put them, whether they save them, how often they look at them, what they're doing when they do look at them, whether digital versus paper saving matters in terms of how people think of their meaningfulness, their connection to past and present identities.
The survey project then yielded a series of presentations, a book chapter, an article or two, and it — along with other people's research — is forming the foundation for the book that I'm writing.
Ashley: So when you're talking about love letters, how are you defining a love letter, and are you also thinking about, this can also be digital, or were you thinking just about paper?
It's both, and I use the term love letters in the publications and the discussions like what we're having today, but in the data collection portion we never really used that word. We called them romantic communication, and we asked people to define them for however they wanted to define them, or in whatever way made sense to them.
We did, however, talk about different formats and defining those. For example, we said paper, letters, notes and cards, even Post-its, because you can imagine somebody leaving a little love note on a Post-it.
Kaitlyn Tiffany: In the intro to the paper, before you get into the study, you quoted this 2013 paper by Russell Belk. I thought it was super interesting. He basically argued that your digital possessions are almost as important, in terms of attachment and your conception of self, as physical possessions. As far as the people that we talked to for this episode, a lot of people said, "Yeah, I save my texts from past relationships, but it's not as if I'm going to scroll back to the beginning of a 30,000 text iMessage thread, so I don't really know why I've saved them."
Yeah, I think it's safe to say that saving digital and saving physical objects operate differently, but I think it's safe to say that both are likely or possible for people to attach meaning. It's just, we're still trying to figure out what that means with the digital piece. In some ways, when I've given talks about this topic, I have different audience members of different generations talk to me about what seems more fleeting or precarious: To store something in a box in the basement or to store something in a cloud.
The fear of losing something can, I think, help us understand how people do or do not attach meaning to digital or physical objects. You could use the same line of questioning for ebooks and physical books. There are people for whom an ebook is just as meaningful, and perhaps it's meaningful because it's so convenient and they can bring it traveling and it's not heavy, and it's easy to download new things, and they're reading more, or it's easy for their kids so therefore it's more meaningful.
You could also imagine people, bibliophiles, saying, "No, the real book that I hold in my hand is the only version of books that I think can be truly meaningful." My job as a sociologist is not to judge either of those, but to sort of uncover what it is that might make somebody think that a digital text is or isn't meaningful. I will say, there might also be something to the kind of transcending generations, like, people feel like texts are fleeting, so they do things to try to preserve them because they don't want to scroll back through 80,000 messages. Maybe they type in texts into a spreadsheet and, I actually know of a person who's done this in New York, to feel like they can say that.
Or, if you're like me, when I first started doing emails in the 1990s, printing them out so that they feel like they're a little bit more concrete.
Ashley: Yeah. I'm curious about that idea, too, because, maybe back in the day people were getting hundreds of thousands of love notes, but it seems like love notes were more of a one off, maybe you got a few. It's not going to be happening every single day, obviously. Whereas texts, especially someone you're dating, you're going to have literally thousands of texts so I'm just wondering if the meaning is lost when you have so many, and also the curatorial practices. Like, putting them in a box is just easier to manage in my brain. If I have a physical letter, I know it's in this place. Done. Walk away.
If you have fewer of some object, it's easier to organize them. I will say, though, that I think that if you think about historical letters between family members, it isn't the case that necessarily it was all about love and romance. It's still the case ... Yeah, there weren't 80,000 of them in one year, but it is the case that messages of love are wrapped into other messages of updates about family, updates about health, updates about weather, even. It's still difficult to weed out the little romantic pieces, even from old-fashioned letters that happened infrequently.
I think the organizational challenge of today is just in the sheer volume of the messages that we get, for sure.
Kaitlyn: There's a super interesting piece in the excerpt of the work that we read where you talk about how it matters where people put things that they're saving. I think it's like heating versus cooling. Could you explain that a little bit, because I think that's very relevant.
Sure. This concept, heating and cooling objects, is not my idea. It stems from really wonderful work by scholars who study consumption practices. But the idea is, if you have something in your home — most of my research centers on home objects and spaces and family relations — if you have something in your home that you want to get rid of, think about an old pair of shoes or a coffee table. Something where you know you don't want to use it anymore.
You don't use it anymore, so you put it in a location to, what scholars call, cool it, maybe in a basement or a garage if you have that or in a room that you don't go to very often, because you're just not quite ready to get rid of it, but you don't use it every time.
The idea is, if you cool an object, it's farther away from you, it's less accessible, and therefore, according to some lines of thinking, perhaps less meaningful. The way we use that in the love letters research is we thought, "Okay, where do you store them? Are they in a place that's accessible, like a nightstand or a dresser top, or are they in a box hidden underneath a bed or behind something or in a cabinet?" The prepositions in, under, and behind become interesting.
One way you can interpret it is, the farther away, the more in, under and behind a box of love letters is, or a love letter is, the cooler the letter is, perhaps the less accessible, the less meaningful, and the ones that are accessible are more meaningful. But I think you could also interpret it the other way, which, my next writing is kind of expanding.
You could also imagine putting something in, under, behind, a box of letters under your bed, is actually saying it's more meaningful to you. The kind of, "I'm going to put it away because it's so private and it is so important to me that I don't want to have other people see it." Therefore, you could suggest that that kind of cooled location means it's actually more meaningful, so it's a fun way to twist the past conceptions of heating and cooling in a new way.
Kaitlyn: How would that apply, then, to text messages or digital things?
The digital ones, that's a harder one to wrap your brain around. Putting something in, under and behind is easier to think about, at least in my mind, if it's actually in a physical room. The digital version of that could be through the use of folders and folders within folders, or, perhaps, I have some friends who have a folder on their desktop, and they label it something that actually isn't what's in there.
Let's say they've got some confidential information and they label it something like "dictionaries" or something boring so that if somebody gets ahold of your laptop and finds this folder they're not going to be intrigued because it's not labeled something like "love letters" or "sexts" or something like that, so there could be a masking of it as a way to connote its privacy and hiddenness in a folder with a fake name that could suggest the same kind of thing that putting a box of letters under a bed in a box might do. It's fun to play with that idea.
Ashley: I'm curious what you see the future of love letters looking like and also, do you think ... I'm not going to assume your answer, but do you think text messages have sort of killed the art of the love letter?
The phrase, "the art of the love letter," I think is by itself interesting, because it suggests that there's something very precious about love letters that we're suggesting is lost in a digital age and I think there are good reasons why we think that. The sheer volume of 80,000 texts makes the idea of love letters seem less precious. They're more frequent.
To me, what I'm worried about is a kind of mismatch between ideal and reality. We already see a lot of that in relationships where we idealize marriage and long term partnership as meeting all of our needs, when it's really impossible for one person to do that. The idea of maybe people feeling quite disappointed without managing their expectations feels like the scariest thing to me.
At the end of what I wrote, I suggested, maybe this suggests that we should have people, as part of their discussion before they decide to partner up with somebody for a long time, to actually communicate quite clearly, what are their expectations about communication? Manage the expectations so that people aren't disappointed. If you're partnering with somebody who says, "I really need to have frequent communication. It doesn't matter what format it's in," versus somebody who says, "Infrequent is fine. I need you to write things down on a piece of paper," it seems to me that that information would be useful to share. It's also good about self discovery, as well.
Ashley: One of the people we interviewed kept a folder of good birthday wishes she received this past year from all the people who had texted her or sent her different things digitally, and she screenshotted them all and kept them in a folder so whenever she's feeling down she can go and revisit them. That was interesting to me because I do save some voicemails from my birthday just in case, but more than that, I save physical cards, like, always. I have always saved them. I wonder if, also, handwriting plays a role, because handwriting is ... everyone has a unique script and so it's from that person directly, whereas we all have the same exact font on iMessage and it doesn't feel as unique and special in that way too.
Right, right. Everyone needs to have their own unique font. I love that story because the questions that pop into my mind with that are, first of all, does personality matter? Some people just are savers and some are not, and you have to acknowledge that there's some people, whether it's a digital version or a paper version, are just going to delete or throw things away. They just don't keep things, and then the cognitive process of deliberating, "Should I keep it or save it," might be exactly the same if it's digital or if it's paper, but the locations where they're located differ.
To me, it might be kind of individual idiosyncratic differences. It might be that you save the paper versions and the person you talked to saves screenshots, it might be that the cognitive process of wanting to save these things to feel good at certain times, to remind yourself of well wishes, to be happy about your friends and networks, that process might be exactly the same. You're just saving them in different formats.
I think, the brain research and all of that other stuff that gets at the different impact it has, has a lot to do with the frequency with which we get all these messages, just the editing work that has to go on. Taking a screenshot versus putting a card in the folder, I think, and then deleting 19,000 screenshots or whatever is a very different kind of workload.
Kaitlyn: Our other interview ... We interviewed my ex-boyfriend and I asked him what he had done with our iMessage thread from our relationship which I had deleted, justifying to myself, like, "I don't have room on my phone for this. It's like two gigs, or whatever." His phone has the same amount of storage and he hadn't deleted it, and I was like, "I didn't even feel remorse doing that." I was like, "I'm never going to read these." It didn't feel like anything to me to delete it, but I would never go into my apartment and look for all ... I have books from him that have inscriptions or birthday cards or Valentines or whatever. I would feel like a monster if I gathered all that stuff up and threw it out. It would feel really destructive and cruel to both him and myself and dishonest about what used to exist.
Kaitlyn: I know, in your study, you looked a little bit at gender differences. I don't think what I just described was typical of what you found, but if you could get into that a little bit, I think that part of the paper was super interesting.
First of all, with your story, thanks for sharing that. It suggests to me, two things: one, that we seem to have a harder time getting rid of objects because it's actually physically heavy to throw a book away and that feels strange but deleting something that's on your phone, these are the swiping processes we do on a daily basis so we're used to that. I think the gender differences emerged not because we had a hypothesis in our survey. We just wondered if there were ways in which men and women operate differently, especially because there's a lot of research on men and women communicating differently. Some of that's exaggerated but it's there.
Differences in men and women, finding themselves feeling responsible for managing family communication and portrayal of the relationship to others and things like that, so we asked questions to men and women the same and then we looked at differences and similarities. What we found is that women are more likely than men to just save anything: mementos, souvenirs, photographs, as well as more likely to save romantic communication. But among the men, those who did save them, they were more likely than women ...
I should say they were more frequent viewers of the love letters than women were, so they visited their love letters that they saved more often. Some of this could be attributed to, and this is again where you can say, "Oh, we could interpret it this way or that way." On one hand, you could say, getting back to the heated and cooled objects, their love letters are more accessible.
For men they were more likely to be on surfaces, desks, nightstands, dressers, and so they might then come across as more important, more accessible, more meaningful, really falling deep and hard and fast in men who have them, are really interested in looking at them often and therefore are very attached to that relationship.
On the other hand, you could look it at as men putting them on surfaces because they haven't gotten put away yet. It sounds kind of like an interesting, perhaps cynical approach, but the responsibility of tidiness in a home and in domestic environments still falls disproportionately on women and so the idea of putting things away actually becomes something that women are more likely to do.
Ashley: Was there anything else we didn't ask you that you really wanted to discuss or that you feel would be relevant to our conversation?
I think the story that I like to share, when you're talking about love letters, like the art of the love letter and handwriting, one thing that occurs to me is we have defined handwriting as being meaningful and connoting taking time and the thoughtfulness and an individualization of a note. If you know it's handwriting from somebody, you feel like it's really that person. They obviously took time to do it, perhaps more time than typing it.
I want to acknowledge that and I think it's really normal for people to feel that and my data supports that, but I also want to suggest that there's a meaning that could be a catch that individualizes digital messages too, and I would say the notion of inside jokes could be relevant.
My husband and I, for example, will text each other ... we travel a lot, and we travel separately from each other, and we don't write handwritten notes to each other. It would actually be quite strange for our relationship, but instead we'll send text messages that have inside jokes that only he and I know about, and to me, that's an interesting way to kind of frame, “how are we defining romance?” Are we defining romance by individualization?
If so, there are probably digital ways in which that could happen, regardless of handwriting, and so I think it's important to say to people who are really suspicious of digital communication as kind of giving way to less personalized and problematic, anti-romantically, to say, "Are you sure?” Because we're the ones who defined handwriting as being meaningful in the first place. Is it possible to define digital versions of communication that individualizes them? Can we define that as personalizing, too?
I'm not as cynical as most people, probably, about digital communication, obviously, but I think that's because I'm the kind of person who is likely to say, "We're the ones who decide if it's meaningful or not, over time."
Ashley: Yeah, that's really interesting because we actually published a feature on The Verge, maybe a year or two ago at this point, but it was about someone who had died and his friends had made a bot of him going off of the text messages he had sent, so they basically created software around just his texts, and the software was able to recreate the way he typed and the way he spoke through texts, so although it's not necessarily individualized in the handwriting way, they were able to ... I guess, the software, when you have enough data, it can find those little individual quirks in the way that you type or the way you spell or the way you use punctuation, or whatever it is, through digital messaging and recreate them, as well.
Yes, the chat bot lover. I think, there you go. There's an app for you. There are a lot of historians actually working right now on precisely those kinds of questions about digitizing archival kinds of materials that used to just be in handwriting, in part because it helps with research and it helps communicate across borders and groups of people, and also in part because there are people who fear that we're not going to be able to read handwriting much longer. That's an interesting conundrum, I think, as well.
Ashley: Oh my God. Well, I am very happy you ended on a dystopian note because that's my favorite kind of note to end interviews on. We love to leave people with something about death or, in this case, the human race won't be able to read handwriting soon, which is like, "Wow, wow, wow." Great. Michelle, thank you so much for coming on the show. This is fantastic. We're so happy to have you.
Thank you, I appreciate it.