After the split, you’re left with an abandoned attic’s worth of stuff: on your phone and hard drive, in your inbox. It’s stuff that used to matter, and still does. It’s stuff that hurts. It’s stuff you loved. What do you do with it?
It’s impossible to plow through a committed relationship in an industrialized nation without piling up an abundant digital record. You’ll have chat transcripts, tagged photos on Facebook, beautiful photos from a DSLR, email letters, Skype call screenshots, texts — so, so many texts. Your first instinct will be to throw it all away.
That’s not a reflex to be ashamed of — just like you wouldn’t want to stare at a framed photo of your ex while you’re hurting, you don’t want to look at hundreds of messages and JPEGs detailing that person either. We’re all hypersensitive when it happens, and we’re living in an age of hyper-info. There are more grains of salt to catch in your heart wound than ever before. This isn’t easy — but let’s try.
Wait a month. Wait longer. Wait until you can look at his or her Facebook profile without feeling something bad in your chest, or the urge to throw your laptop. No good decision, in this century or any other, has ever been made in the fresh wake of a breakup. Please, please don’t throw your laptop.
Don’t delete these. Really, don’t. You’ll regret it if you do. Not because maybe someday you’ll get back together and be so glad you kept it all. You probably won’t. But these pictures aren’t just small monuments to a failed romance, they’re high-resolution instants from your life, recorded forever, unfading. It’s not just your ex’s smile that you miss and wish you could have back and oh god I need a drink — it’s the way you were at a particular moment a shutter snapped and a digital sensor touched light.
It’s your dog, your apartment, your haircut, your holiday, your job, your old bike — everything that was you for that moment, regardless of who you were dating and who you loved. This is matter you’ll want years and decades from now — don’t be rash and trash it.
Instead, vault it. Copy everything that’s too much to look at onto an external hard drive or some remote backup system, and then delete it from your machine. Put that hard drive in a sock drawer or under your bed. Give it to a friend. Place it where it won’t distract and won’t harm, but, when you’re ready, can provide a vivid reminder of who you used to be. That’s incredibly powerful! Don’t destroy it on a whim.
Yeah, toss these. All leftover playlists will do is smear heartbreaking meaning and nostalgia over songs you’d otherwise enjoy. Remember, you made this playlist explicitly for your ex — you tailored songs you both love in an order you thought might make them smile, miss you, have sex with you. And all those memories could swamp you based on nothing but this otherwise innocuous list of MP3s. So get rid of the list. Keep the songs though.
If you got a burned playlist in return, again, toss. It’s an artefact that carries all the hurtful weight of a physical object with none of the sentimentality. Do you even have an optical drive anymore?
Emails can be as banal and brief as any text message, but there are plenty of exceptions: long ones penned while abroad, or travelling, mail with attachments, breakup letters, “I miss you” letters. Rather than sift through everything, archive it all. Do a search for his or her email, select all, and pack it away into a folder or some other deep depth of your account. Remember: this email is part of your life history. It includes details you won’t remember by the time you’re long over the breakup, and you’ll be grateful for them.
Delete — this is just an invitation to wallow and/or leap back into ill-advised contact. Both are bad for you.
Again, an opportunity to wallow, a web browser shortcut to melancholy. And who wants a future prospect to see a bunch of pictures with your ex?
There should be a pattern emerging here. It’s difficult, but you need to discern what baggage is going to be useful even after all the heavy, horrible, hurtful emotions wear off. What are the bytes that’ll have significance on their own, without the love connection? What stuff will remind you about your life in some broader sense than a relationship that occupied some months or years of it? What’ll be that GIF or text you wish to hell you hadn’t erased, because who knows what it might’ve reminded you of about the way you used to be?
Those things deserve backup. The rest was just noise all along.
User Manual is Gizmodo’s regular guide to etiquette.