Sunday, July 13, 2008

SMS and the Magic Numbers

Cranes sleep at night. For once, this picture was taken by me.
Incidentally, SMS and the Magic Numbers would make a good name for a midi band.

Sunk by the weight of two thousand text messages, my cell phone slumbers and waits. Thumbing through the navigation, I've acclimated to pressing a button and waiting with weighted patience for the cell phone to do anything at all. Usually, this wait lasts thirty seconds or more. But I hold my breath and bear it, because I know all too well: this is entirely my own fault.

Two thousand text messages. More, actually. Most cell phones nudge you to delete after 50, a hundred. Mine has exercised extreme patience with me and my desperate archival habits. Returning the favor? It only seems fair.

But how did I get to here? Well, I sent many text messages, and also received many text messages. And saved them all. It's simple, but it adds up to something. I've resisted deleting them for a long time—well past the 800 mark, where my phone started warning me that my inbox could only handle so many. I didn't want to lose some key to my past, my recent past. I knew that 160 characters couldn't say much. But the brevity of that number, its immediacy and intimacy, has led to some fairly important exchanges taking place over text messages. I save everything else in my life—my emails, my papers, my pictures, my blog posts. I didn't want to lose the best part: the coy and urgent backchannel to my own life.

So tonight, I embarked on a ridiculous salvaging mission. Because, patient though it may be, my phone cannot take much more. And it's time for me to start letting go. Or at least, start learning something. After reading a few articles, I decided that downloading text messages to my computer seemed unlikely. "Oh no," I thought to myself, "how will I ever capture all the relevant metadata? Times, dates, names!" It seemed impossible. Until I remembered about the existence of spreadsheets.

And so. I started a spreadsheet. Sent/Received, Date, Time, Name, Message. The message field is longer. It's painfully slow. But I'm learning things, already. I'm remembering old feelings; rediscovering them in the amber of a small, slow screen. 160, like 140, is a magic number: just enough space for a salutation, an arrangement, and a charming farewell. Every extra word means something, so it means something. Everyone knows the rules. And I have to say, it's strange seeing those non-public communications arrayed in a grid. They're patterns and patterns, and I'll probably never show them to anyone. But if I weren't doing this, I would never see them again, either. And communication—when it's dense, and loaded, and urgent—rewards inquisitive return. Archival hubris aside, I'm still glad I started something.


Joshus said...

Mid-March of this year, I started doing something similar.

I abhor cell phone text messages (the economics of them are ridiculous), but hypocritically treasure IM. So much so that I collected thousands of IM conversations via the logging features in my IM clients since June 2003.

"Why do you do that?" my friends would ask, worried that I would capture something incriminating. I honestly didn't have a good answer, other than maybe that folks would tell me phone numbers and other important information via IM, and I would immediately forget it.

Come March 2008, surviving my college correspondence and numerous hard drive failures and migrations, I had what could be called a "corpus of IM." Disorganized in numerous text files, folders, and whatever other archival artifacts my IM clients gave me, the collection was interesting to peruse on nostalgic nights.

Unfortunately, I am a programmer. I felt my system was inefficient. I wrote a program that would go through my IM logs, read in all pertinent data (conversation start/stop, timestamps, nicknames, IM protocols, maybe the message itself) and commit it to a database. I even put a web interface in front of it (though visible to nobody but myself).

I was reminded immediately of my IM logging side-project when I stumbled upon your writings a few days ago. I even decided to add a new feature. It is now a wholly frightening and exhilarating thing to hit "Random" and be taken to any time in the last five or so years.

Thanks for the reminder, and for the good reads in general.

Diana Kimball said...

Joshus: this is amazing! If only I knew how to program. My friend Tim and I are doing a presentation this fall on the vagaries of personal archives. I've started naming files in such a way that someday, in the future, I'll be able to make sense out of all of them. (As a timeline; a record of life.) Thanks for the story, (the true story), and stay in touch.