Where will our love letters go

Modern relationships begin, take place, and end mediated by the ways we talk to each other online. A relationship might start on Tinder, move to Instagram, then text, and eventually–if you’re that kind of couple–be made Facebook official.

These bits of communication–the likes, hearts, messages, and photos–the breadcrumbs of our digital lives–document real feelings between real people. These feelings exist in two brains interlocked in that limbic resonance of human love. Today, these feelings aren’t archived on paper, or even on an answering machine, but sit instead in some anonymous data center. Rather than be a treasured artifact, these conversations are mined by algorithms whose goal is to sell you things.

Yet these bytes are the closest thing we have to love letters in our time. The flirtatious comment, the goodnight text, those messages full of smiley faces and gifs contain our hopes, joys, insecurities, and secret pleasures. As we all know, some likes or hearts mean more than others. How is it that knowing a particular person ‘loved your photo’ can send a bolt of electricity through your body? Did the engineers that built the Facebook Like button realize how much dopamine their collection of javascript would unleash?

The stories of our love lives are now simultaneously less physical and more immediate. When letters were written by hand they were singular. They existed only between the sender and the receiver, and they could be cherished. Looking up from our sterile screens, I don’t think we realize how intimate this was: you could see the imprint of where they had written ‘I love you,’ maybe there were little errors, quirks of their handwriting. Maybe it smelled of them. Not infinitely replicable, not in the service of an algorithm or market valuation. The message, the feelings, were wholly yours.

These letters last as long as paper does. They don’t need to be upgraded or migrated. And they give to history such an invaluable artifact–whether Einstein’s love letters or your grandmother’s–they open a window into the unique and universal experience of falling in love. They make our ancestors human, and they can, in sometimes explicit terms, explain how we came to be.

What will future generations have lost when our platforms inevitably close? It’s already happened: MySpace, AIM, any text you sent on a Nokia. As we hurl headlong into the venture-backed future, our promiscuity with social software remains unabated. There will only be more digital spaces where we share intimate moments, not less. It’s time we start thinking about how we can save what happens on them.

A few tools to save your digital communication