Imagine if, after you die, all of your e-mails, G-chats, tweets, photos and Facebook posts became available to the public. For a handful of famous writers and intellectuals, a version of that digital mind dump is already reality. For instance, NPR reports, Susan Sontag's 17,198 emails are all available for viewing on a laptop in the UCLA Library Special Collections reading room.
For better or for worse, archived e-mails can add an element of personality to a writer. From The Millions:
[Biographer D.T.] Max may regret that [David Foster] Wallace’s writing became terse when he used email, yet it surely casts light on the life and work. It could be that Wallace, as he lapsed back into the depression that eventually killed him, simply didn’t want to write more effusively. Or that in emails he didn’t feel the same obligation to cloak his feelings in craft. Whatever the reason, clearly the expansive and carefully-wrought writing of Wallace’s novels did not come entirely naturally.
For many others, however, email is a light-hearted form. Benjamin Moser highlights his delight at realizing “that Sontag sent e-mails with the subject heading ‘Whassup?’”
With limited amounts of time, historians are more likely to focus on public figures like Sontag and Wallace to create full-scale archives instead of documenting every single electronic artifact left by John Smith from Anytown, USA. But librarians are working to capture at least a portion of the the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people, too. The Library of Congress has an archive of every tweet that was tweeted from 2006 to 2010. And the Internet Archive has subcollection, curated by librarians, of the information and rumors that fly around so quickly during troubling times like revolutions or attacks.
The Financial Times explains:
An archive of websites from the Arab uprising protests that began in 2011 includes an Egyptian site that memorialised victims of violence, and images of protests from Flickr and YouTube. Another, which curated information on last year’s bombings at the Boston marathon, includes amateur videos of the explosion and blogs displaying tweets from the immediate aftermath, accusing everyone from “Muslims” to “Koreans” of perpetrating the attack.
Archiving in this case can help solidify cultural touchstones…even those we might not want to remember.