‘I’m moving to Spain’: now online memoirs are being created from life-defining texts

What memories are you harbouring in your old handset? Steve Rhodes, CC BY-SA

During the February half term break, I took my son to the Hayward gallery to see the new Martin Creed show. The highlight of the exhibition is a space in which 20 people are squeezed into a small room, filled with 7,000 white balloons. My son loved it, and as ever, when he’s lost in the moment, I like to take a photo.

7,000 balloons, one lost phone. Julian Stallabrass, CC BY

Forgetting the health and safety advice sheet I’d been handed at the beginning of the show, clearly stating that participants shouldn’t hold any objects, I reached for my iPhone. I took four or five photos of my son jumping wildly about but when another child fell against me, I dropped my phone. No matter how hard I tried to move the hundreds of balloons away from the space beneath me, it had seemingly vanished. My son burst into tears, he hasn’t a phone of his own yet and constantly uses mine to play games. I told him that it would be fine, that we’d find someone to help us find it. I was putting a brave face on it.

My first thought was that my iPhone was uninsured and would cost me a fortune to replace. That thought was quickly overshadowed by a deeper sense of regret. I remembered that none of the camera roll was backed up. I had nearly 3,000 photos and videos. Photos of Christmas, of my son’s birthday, of friends, holidays, days out, work trips to Vancouver and Prague. There were also the text threads from friends and family that I regularly scrolled through. Memory prompts of the highs and lows of the preceding year. All gone. I felt gutted.

Twenty minutes later, a security guard saved the day. After an exhaustive search through the 7,000 balloons, he found it, unscathed, its memory intact. My son was thrilled, and the knot in my stomach that had been with me since its loss, disappeared.

The Nokia years

This wasn’t the first time I realised that my life was archived in my phone. I’ve recently completed a memoir based on a text message thread stored in a vintage Nokia. In 2001, the Nokia 8310 was a premium model but its micro size now reminds me of a toy phone you might find in a Christmas cracker. I still have the handset. It now lies at the back of my kitchen drawer, where old mobiles go to die.

My Nokia story began more than a decade ago. At 38, I was a freelance film director. After a short relationship ended, I found myself single, pregnant and broke. I decided to have the baby and raise him alone.

Years after my son was born, scrolling though that old Nokia, I found that I had unwittingly archived a three-year dialogue of text messages between my son’s father and I. Hidden in the inbox sat 100 texts that told the story of how we met, broke up, dealt with, and then failed to deal with, the unplanned pregnancy. As we grew further apart, conversations were replaced by texts. His first text read:

Loved meeting u xx

Three years later, he requested a paternity test when our son was two. I received this text afterwards:

I got the results. I needed to know. I’m moving to Spain…

That was his last and final text. My son is ten now. He hasn’t seen my ex-partner since he was two. He has no memory of his father. What remains of him is the digital footprint he left behind.

We live in a digital world in which people can fall in love and fall apart online and in texts. Time has become a luxury many of us dream about. We text instead of talk. It’s a digital hit and run. Texting is perfect for “C U at 7”, “I’m running late”, but how do we navigate more complex messages in a couple of sentences? In an age of rapid-fire, often limited-character exchanges, do we think before we text?

Memories, both good and bad, are often triggered by a text message or an email hidden in our mobile phones. Our phones have become portable personal archives that hold stories, secrets and clues about who we are. Each chapter of my memoir uses one of the key texts as a catalyst to signal the start or close of another drama, capturing the story behind each message.

“What a great 48 hours” – received after our third date. “Hope today goes well” – received as I had my first scan. “You have a son and he’s beautiful” – sent after our baby was born.

With the memoir as a starting point, I’ve adapted it into a ten-part animated series for the web. In each episode of the series, extracts from the book will be brought to life. Once complete, each episode will be available online.

The final episode of the series will visualise the closing chapter of the memoir. It’s a book which tells a personal story but also explores a more universal issue – how we increasingly “expect more from technology and less from each other”.

Your digital memoir

Text Me begins with my own very personal story but there are many more compelling technology stories to uncover. I’m fascinated by how our audience can become an active and dynamic part of the story telling process. As part of my research in the Department of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London, I’ve worked with over 100 Royal Holloway students in making short films. Each film was inspired by a digital story hidden in a mobile phone. The final films were impressive, bringing to life long forgotten emails and message threads.

With a recent award from Creativeworks London , I’m exploring how new technologies and platforms can enhance our audience participation. I’d like people to think about their own digital footprint and to share their own stories and secrets, starting on Twitter. Users will be able to bring to life a text message from their own phone archive. We will encourage users to share their own digital secrets, the messages they treasure and the ones they wish they’d never sent.

Firstly I’d like contributors to send a text message that marked the start or end of a personal drama that changed their life. Perhaps the last message you received from a relative who passed away, the first text your child sent you, a text that broke your heart, a text that fixed it, a text that bought good news and bad… Or simply a message you don’t want to forget. All messages will be published anonymously.

We will use these tweeted messages to develop a web-based interactive app, which will allow users to share their own stories and view those that others have created. The final Text Me website, which will go live later this year, will feature editing software which contributors can use to create their own film out of a text message or thread.

The phone in our pocket and the communications we send up into the cloud holds an ever-expanding and treasured archive of our lives. Since losing my iPhone recently, for just that heart stopping 20 minutes, I learned my lesson. I backed it up. Because the phone in my pocket is no longer just a communications device, it is also an archive of my life. My phone has replaced the shoebox underneath my bed that was full of mementos, photos and letters. Text Me will explore how these stories flow through our phones and what journeys they ultimately take us on.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.