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21: On Preservation

December 17, 2011

It’s weird how we’ve become a culture obsessed with preservation of memory rather than experience.

I guess I realized this when I was in DC these past months. Anyone who follows me on Facebook can attest to the huge folder of photographs I took while there. Pictures of friends, food, places, monuments. And I slowly began to realize, on one of my many lazy web-surfing days, that when I flip through those photos I skip quickly past the photos of the monuments, the photos of a particularly beautiful bit of sky, and the pictures of blurry, far-off animals at the zoo. I linger slightly longer on the photos of friends, or those goofy pictures I take with statues, but in the long run, it gave me little gratification. The time that I took to snap those photos of meaningless landscapes and buildings that already have thousands of photos online (in far better lighting/angle/quality than my poor camera skills) I could have instead used to really soak up the experience of being in their presence.

There were days when I took long walks and lamented forgetting my camera, and that lamentation took something away from the experience of actually being there and exploring the city. But why? Why are we so focused on documenting absolutely everything that happens? Why focus on preserving a two-dimensional image of the experience that will never live up to the emotion you felt and the three-sixty view that lives on in your mind? Taking a picture is often such an awkward experience that involves waiting for people to pass, or making sure the light is hitting the target from the right angle, and that the focus isn’t too blurry. And of course you’ve been in the presence of friends who stop to take pictures, thus breaking up the flow of going to wherever it is you were going to.

I guess it’s natural to want to preserve moments, and I’m not advocating that we don’t stop to take photos or tweet about events or post something on facebook from your mobile. Even as I’m typing this, the seconds that it took me to write the first part of the sentence are already gone. A memory. And that sentence. And this one too. Everything is fleeting and the development of social media and new technology makes it easier for us to think that all of these moments can coexist with us as we are. But do we really need to remember everything?

I just switched to the new Facebook Timeline view, and as much as I found it aesthetically pleasing, it made me uncomfortable. Relative to some of my friends, I’m pretty new to Facebook. I only got an account in late 2007, and didn’t really start using it until about 2009. What made me uncomfortable was the access it gave me to my 2007-2010 self. Back in the early days of social media, when me and a dozen friends followed one another on GreatestJournal and LiveJournal style blogs, it was far easier to instigate self-change and shuck off the less mature rantings of years past. You got a new username, changed your journal layout and deleted or locked down your old writings so no one else could access them and see just how childish you were a few years ago.

Since I joined Facebook  – heck, even in the last year – I have grown leaps and bounds emotionally. I don’t want access to the person I was in 2007. I don’t want to remember how horrible and vicious I was in 2008. I certainly don’t want others to see it. I want that part of my life to be a memory, or at the very least a private footnote. Those years taught me valuable lessons already and I don’t want them staring me in the face, nor do I want the friends I have now to judge who I am today based on the things I said in 2009.

It’s harder to delete things online than it is in real life. I’m not talking about the fear-campaign of “once you post something you can never delete it” – I’m talking real logistics. With an old diary, you can just throw it in the trash, or rip out pages. I went through three years of Facebook posts on this new timeline deleting the immature person I was back then, each time clicking a drop-down box, then the “Delete Post” button, then the confirmation box saying “Yes I’m SURE I want to delete this post.” I deleted my inane chatter about how “I’m tired” or “I had a sandwich today.” I deleted profanity and objectionable posts from people I’m no longer friends with. I deleted posts from an old boyfriend because I didn’t want to be reminded of how badly I mistreated him.

Am I proud to admit these things? No.

But should we be forced to carry irrelevant baggage with us in the digital realm as we grow and change? Absolutely not.

I’m going to continue to use Facebook to communicate with people, and I’ll probably still take pictures and post them, but I don’t want to get bogged down in the mundane jabber or the passive-aggressive stabs that I know I’ll be embarrassed by down the road. This culture of preservation is holding us back from experiencing moments in real time and keeping us tethered to the words we said and the people we were. I can’t imagine how anyone would want to live vicariously through a digital version of themselves, experiencing second-hand what they should have already been focused on in the first place.

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