Summary: We write a lot of words, and our words may serve as the truest expression of our personalities after we’re dead, if we keep them in a safe place. It might also be nice to have our present-day words around when we’re older.
After we are dead, information about ourselves will continue to exist.
Some of this information won’t last very long; our bodies disappear quickly, rotting or burning to ash. But we’ve gotten rather good at keeping the rest of it stored in various places and formats.
How we look and sound, for example. YouTube features footage of tens of millions of people moving/speaking/singing, and many families keep home videos of some kind. Then there’s an entire universe of still photographs—both photos taken of us and photos we’ve taken of other things. And we’ll have electronic medical records, possibly even entire sequenced genomes, to testify to the physical facts of our existence.
Less directly, there are the memories of people who have known us. While each individual thinks in different shades and tones, I’d consider memories other people have of me to be “information”. Sadly, I’ll never have access to most of that information, and all of it will disappear with the deaths of my acquaintances, unless they take the time to write about me somewhere safe.
(On the other hand, perhaps it is a great blessing that we trundle through life mostly unaware of what others think about us.)
However, the most significant record I’m likely to leave behind is my writing. Before I die, I hope to make almost everything I’ve written available in a public repository, if only for curious historians and grandchildren. As long as our digital civilization exists, my words will be searchable, quotable, and available for whatever other interesting functions computers may have in the future.
Though I don’t plan to die for at least another century, I’ve decided to take stock of my written words so far. There are a lot of them, and dealing with the sheer number was enough of a thought experiment for one post. I don’t include self-editing and backspaces, but the rest of this is an honest estimation. (I’ll spare you most of the calculations.)
- Personal journal: 450,000 words.
- Published writing, mostly at Yale: 100,000.
- Editing for other people, as an editor, a tutor, and a friend: 25,000.
- Writing for various jobs and internships: 25,000.
- Fiction writing, including 1.5 novels and various stories and drafts: 200,000.
- Notes, ideas, and other unfinished projects: 150,000.
- College courses: 70,000, roughly half of them from my first-year classics program.
- High school courses: 250,000, at around 60,000 per year plus my senior essay.
- School before high school: 150,000, at 30,000 per year for grades 6-8 and 12,000 per year for grades 1-5.
- Applications, for college, jobs, clubs, classes, and scholarships: 20,000.
- Online forums: 150,000, mostly politics and manga (read: Naruto).
- Social media: 400,000, almost all of it from Facebook messages, comments, and statuses.
- This blog: 15,000, since most of the material here was originally published elsewhere.
- Email: 600,000, at about 10 emails per day and 50 words per email for three years of heavy use, plus much lighter use from 2005-2011.
- Text messages: 50,000, though this is my weakest estimate.
This comes to about 2.7 million. I’d probably round to three million for the “things I haven’t thought of” factor (writing in physical journals, handwritten class notes in college, etc.).
And at least half of it can be digitized, even if I don’t count on Facebook to retain anything.
I have no idea how this compares to the average college-aged Internet user, but they probably aren’t all that different. My personal work—the journal, the fiction, the notes—only makes up a third of my total output. I was an active forum poster in high school, but unlike many people, I’m not on Reddit or any other forum now. I write long emails, but I’m probably below the 50th percentile for texting. I’d guess that anyone reading this post has written over a million words in the last ten years.
It would be nice if I could derive a practical conclusion from this idle thought experiment. Here’s my best attempt:
Thanks to the existence of laptops and keyboards and whatnot, modern humans do a ridiculous amount of writing. Much of it is impersonal (school assignments), but some of it (Facebook messages, texting) is an expression of at least one aspect of our inner selves. And technology lets us export our text messages, save our Facebook messages, etc., without much effort. If you back your stuff up with a billion-dollar cloud company, chances are it’s not going to vanish without warning.
And while right now you might not see much utility in keeping around high school homework or chats with your exes, the You of 2050, or the noble academics of God Knows When, might think otherwise. So it may be a good idea to save things now, in case you want to read them ten or twenty or thirty years later.