Ask yourself: if your house was on fire, what would you save? It’s the kind of timeless hypothetical scenario that, usually recited during long car journeys or childhood sleepovers, is probably recognisable in some form in Socratic dialogues or medieval scripture.
With all its various social platforms regularly referred to hellscapes, today it’s the internet that feels like it’s on fire, and we need to figure out what to keep. Online, we are almost constantly wrangling over that same question: what to save, where to save it, and how to justify the choices we made.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in the past year in rooms filled with photographic and written relics, in the presence of archivists for whom fire safety is key. These guardians have been almost exactly as one would picture: gentle, fastidious and faintly bemused at the presence of another human. (On a recent visit to one archive in deepest Chelsea, I was told that nobody else had come to see it since before the pandemic began.)
Once, the idea of rifling through boxes of documents in search of something elusive—the kind of thing you’ll only know when you see it—would have felt like a chore. Now, it’s an encounter that feels special. I admire these men and women, and see their pursuit of preserving the past as somewhat noble. I’m beginning to realize the archivist’s instinct to preserve chimes with my own increasingly preservationist online tendencies. In the ongoing battle between ephemeral and permanent forms of media, the ephemeral seems to have won out, and I’m not sure I’m quite ready.
Online, the dividing lines of two camps have been set: are you a hoarder, or a pyromaniac?
An existing vocabulary for saving one’s work has been built into the architecture of the home computer from the start, with the folders, desktops and documents of the operating systems millennials grew up on acting as computerized versions of familiar modes of organization. On computer games, where we were asked to “save your progress” before exiting, to accidentally click ‘No’ felt like a death. (On my glitchy CD-ROM of “Theme Hospital,” a bug meant the trauma of going all the way back to the beginning of the game each and every time—not that this stopped me.) But somewhere between CD-ROMs and social media, saving our progress became show-and-tell. To display the images that mean something to us—on MySpace through to Tumblr, Facebook through to Instagram—has meant acting as caretaker to an archive that is visitable to the public at any hour.
For those who have always grown up with social media, the desire to “save your progress” is starting to wear thin. Millennials like me are, for the first time, being presented with internet affordances that feel truly unfamiliar. TikTok—an app that encourages a stream of chaotic clips, and is defined by trends that are constantly being warped by its users—has become a major cultural influence; while Snapchat, the much-emulated leader in the field for disappearing content, has given way to a new era of transient posting. For those of us who still use Instagram, a practice of post-purging has become pervasive, with curated feeds being shunned in favor of disappearing Stories. Meanwhile, on BeReal—a platform founded in 2020 and explicitly posited by its makers as the “anti-Instagram”—spontaneity is enforced by the design. On the app, the user is sent a daily notification that grants a mere two-minute window to snap a photograph of what they are doing at that moment. Only after posting your own photo are you granted permission to see what everyone else has posted. By encouraging in-the-moment posting, BeReal is fostering an environment in which choreographed, edited, filtered posts we once prized are impossible. It captures your life as it is, as opposed to how you’d wish it to be presented.
But something still feels off about the professed carefreeness of this new approach. For me, an app like BeReal feels like the latest expression of a kind of shared anxiety about the centrality of our phones in our lives. With its rules and regulations, the app feels more akin to the various private tricks I play on myself to regulate my social media usage—the self-control apps, the screentime quotas, the post-deleting services. Like regular Instagram purges and “casual” photo dumps, BeReal’s environment is as carefully planned as anything else. In other words, it doesn’t feel like freedom, either.
Still, while I can’t see myself throwing all my life experiences into the black holes of a new generation of self-disappearing media, I don’t see myself spending my free time creating sock drawers for the memories that make up me either, like a netizen Marie Kondo. Rather than getting anxious about this strange state of online record—the position of existing somewhere between content producer and private collector, and 24-hour story generator and permanent Google Image search result—I’m curious about what embracing an in-betweenness might look like. The tension between the urge to remember and the urge to burn the organized online life to the ground might be messy, but it could be a generative kind of mess.
Having interviewed a 17-year-old who regularly deletes her Instagram feed, technology writer Hussein Kesvani writes how, for the teenage girl, “posting photos isn’t about archiving moments of her life to look back on years from now; instead, they serve as more of a screenshot, capturing the experiences she wants to show her friends in the moment, but maybe not forever.”
The screenshot—itself defined by the in-the-moment capture of something fleeting—does feel like a useful analogy for occupying a position somewhere between saving and deleting. I encounter films both seen and unseen in the form of daily encounters with screenshots, usually on Instagram. A snippet of banal conversation here, an articulation inside a moment there. Eric Rohmer’s heroines and romantic K-dramas are all experiencing a second life in the infographic age. While some might argue there’s a shallowness to the form (how can you claim to be a fan of a certain director if you’ve only engaged with singular, subtitled snapshots of their work?), to me it feels like a natural halfway point between the urge to set down experience and the urge to let it pass you by. The way I organize screenshots can feel, then, like a continuation of the personal archiving practices of my girlhood: disorganized, for my personal use only, and yet saved. That I rarely revisit these screenshots on my messy desktop is besides the point. It’s the practice of capturing it that matters, not an intended display. To press Shift + Command + 3 is comforting because it expresses two very human desires: the desire for moments of beauty, and the desire for moments of clarity.
Sadly, like many corners of the internet in which the user can find small freedoms, the screenshot is being clamped down on, too. As of this spring, most streaming sites now block the ability to screenshot for reasons of copyright even though, for the majority of viewers, to screenshot is to capture a feeling for your own pleasure only. But the more I think about the way I am beginning to use the internet and my phone, there are other quieter resistances in play. The memories (and memes) visitable in all their randomness in the media, links, and docs section of a WhatsApp thread feel more true to the dynamics of day-to-day life than my iPhone’s sorting of photos into months, locations, faces and themes. Even the Notes app expresses a space for the kind of streams of thought that are more closely held and pleasingly obfuscatory.
In the end, to move through the world is to experience encounters that constantly pass us by, and to brush up against moments that we are not able to save other than as an unreliable memory. The increasing popularity of apps like BeReal that capture those moments—rather than try to contain and display them—seems to reflect an embrace of life’s fleetingness. But what they neglect is the need to find other ways to interact with the media we encounter, like the photographs, quotes and films that have an impact on us, and shape us. When it comes to that particular landscape, we need new tools to pay tribute to the imprints—the traces, the annotations—these objects make on us. We need tools that are less about organizing moments than saving the feeling of the encounter.
The messy computer desktop also feels like it occupies this very in-betweenness, with the files saved there feeling somewhere between remembered, and temporary. Scrolling through mine, I see a passport photo, an image from a Studio Ghibli film of a character filling a vase with water, a still of Nastassja Kinski at a zoo in “Cat People,”and a Jonas Mekas film negative. In the latter, Mekas occupies the bottom two frames with his back to the camera, looking out of the window. In the frame above, the words on a pink backdrop much like an Eric Rohmer intertitle: “YOU LOOK AT THE SUN. THEN YOU RETURN HOME AND YOU CAN’T WORK, YOU’RE IMPREGNATE WITH ALL THAT LIGHT.” In the foreground, in the midst of shelves and shelves of objects, is the artist’s very messy desk.