nature1188, leonlovesddr, and other legacies of my digital past ✖
A few weeks ago, I made it a project one evening to log back into my long-dormant ICQ account. It isn’t because I feel like ICQ has anything in particular to offer to my instant messaging experience — I’ve stopped using the service ICQ turned into, AOL Instant Messenger — but instead as an exercise in what parts, if any, of my early digital identity I could actually regain access to in 2012.
ICQ turned out to be the easiest service of the night. A quick search for my first and last name in ICQ’s still-operational people directory turned up four results. Because ICQ UINs were issued sequentially, the lowest number was my earliest account: 1807000, which, apparently, is a hugely desirable number. I’d forgotten, of course, that lucrative 6- or 7-digit ICQ numbers used to be a huge industry in the heyday of pointless shit people paid for on the internet. (In retrospect, I’m surprised that my enterprising elementary school self didn’t try to sell my number back when I could have found someone stupid enough to pay for it.)
I’d also forgotten my password. The ICQ password reset process required me to log back into one of my early e-mail accounts, on Hotmail, which presented yet another hurdle because, of course, I’d also forgotten that password. Fortunately, my personality hasn’t changed very much since middle school, because my intuitive answers to my challenge-and-response security questions still worked (Q: “What is your favorite TV show that is no longer on the air?” A: Daria.) Along with 10,000 or so spam messages and a small handful of personal messages I hadn’t deleted (this was back in the days that e-mail storage limits were still relevant), I found the ICQ password reset e-mail and, a few clicks later, had access to an instant messaging service no one I know still uses.
I wasn’t so lucky with my absolute earliest e-mail account. My first AOL screen name, nature1188 (a riff on an elementary school friend’s nature385; evidently, we were both very into nature), still existed, but the password reset process required access to another long-gone address: firstname.lastname@example.org. And therein, the trail ended. Adelphia, South Florida’s first cable broadband provider, was acquired by Comcast after going bankrupt in 2002. And, according to Comcast, I missed the migration deadline for my Adelphia address some time in 2003.
There’s no telling what I might have unearthed if I had logged into my old AOL account. Most likely, as with Hotmail, it would have been a lot of spam, and possibly one or two hints of what I was up to on the internet in elementary school. And this doesn’t even scratch the surface of my various digital presences: old blogs, long forgotten or deleted (including my first LiveJournal account, leonlovesddr, later abbreviated to leon); forums I used to post on; now-defunct news sites like Plastic.com (which apparently closed up shop in 2011) where I used to lie about my age and post under the username Mok; and on and on.
Plenty of people have been preoccupied with these sorts of questions before. GOOD mused about the “eternal shame” of your first online handle, never pausing to wonder if those handles are still accessible or what actually came of them. The New York Times and the Atlantic have both mused about the “problem” of on- and offline death in the digital age, and how to deal with the trail of Facebook profiles and e-mail accounts that persist once we die. One of the biggest issues, both articles agree, is that we’re generating so much digital content that it’s hard to imagine future generations being able to sort through it. As the Times puts it,
Bit-based personal effects are different. Survivors may not be aware of the deceased’s full digital hoard, or they may not have the passwords to access the caches they do know about. They may be uncertain to the point of inaction about how to approach the problem at all. Any given e-mail account, for instance, can include communication as trivial as an “I’m running late” phone call or as thoughtful as a written letter — all jumbled together, by the hundreds or thousands.
The living aren’t exempt from these issues, either. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, in Delete (2009), writes about the humanistic problems of an information environment in which we’ve forgotten how to forget. Reputation and identity have become indelible, in a way that Mayer-Schönberger suggests they weren’t previously. The archival of blog posts and tweets and Facebook status updates creates a digital trail of personal information that short-circuits the human processes of forgetting and evolving. Maybe that’s true, although Mayer-Schönberger’s solutions — most significantly, an artificial system of information expiration after a period of time — is hardly an adequate response.
But what about all the information we don’t remember or can’t regain access to? As one of the first waves of so-called “digital natives,” most of my life is archived, in some form, online — essentially from birth, in a series of e-mail accounts and social network handles. So is it a problem that I can’t access the first 15 or so years? I don’t flatter myself to think that I will ever have a biographer interested in piecing together the life of Yoel Roth from my digital detritus, but as a point of personal interest, I’m slightly concerned that a significant chunk of my past is totally out of reach. Far from Mayer-Schönberger’s claim that, socially, we can’t forget, I’m confronted with the experience of being utterly unable to remember.
Posted 6/06/12 by Yoel Roth. Comments. 0 notes.