Memory fades but our words are forever

In defense of plain text and chat logs. 10 minutes to read.

Talking with Violet tonight I realized how scary things are sometimes. I’ve spent the greater portion of my life talking to people online. I’ve been on IRC since I was 10, younger than anyone really should be, and I’ve been using Discord for a few years now. IRC is a plain text protocol, you keep the logs and it isn’t really the responsibility of anyone else.

Had I been better with keeping archives and placing value on things like that, I might have logs from long ago. There are friends who I only knew on IRC, and this being prior to the lack of anonymity we’ve accepted in our social networks, I actually don’t know any of their names. There’s a small selection of people who I’ve kept up in other ways, because as luck would have it I’d run into them again somewhere and know for sure it was them. What about those who I do not remember anymore, who no longer seem to coalesce where I did? The memory of them has become blurry and obscured as I’ve gotten older and realized how many years depression, social ostracization, and gender dysphoria took from me.

I was cleaning out my Dropbox account a few months ago when I found three screenshots of my desktop from around 2011. They are the earliest pictures I have of things I did on the computer that I remember taking. In one screenshot, there was an XChat window with me and a friend talking in a channel we founded together, to work on fun stuff for the Nintendo DSi’s web browser. What happened to the screenshots, and why am I not posting them here? Because past me deleted them. I thought I should move on, and I didn’t have the IRC logs of the conversations I had with that person anymore. That was a (looking back now, ironic) choice I made for myself.

I met Violet on Tumblr, I knew her there for years and years, and we started talking more after we both were on a Discord server dedicated to a favorite music artist. Had I not chosen to talk more to her, I would not have started hormone therapy and escaped the clutches of depression, I would not have traveled out of the country for the first time in my life, and I would be a much lonelier person. What does this have to do with anything else mentioned here?

At the time I’m writing this, we have sent 330,097 direct messages back and forth since January 13th, 2017. The first things said were "Hi" (from her), and then "🐱 cat" (from me). She had a cat as her avatar at the time. (she told me this while reading this post, because I didn’t remember this anymore, and only her current avatar on Discord shows for all of her messages, which is no longer a cat) We talk just about every single day and if I had the message data myself I’d be interested in finding the days in which we did not talk.

The me that sent that reply is an unrecognizably different person than who I am now; stays in her room, lives with her parents, has a tenuous relationship with anyone at school and anyone her age. I now live two and a half hours from my parents in the mountains of North Carolina with three other roommates, one of which is my other girlfriend, Cassie; did I mention I’m polyamorous now? I talk to my mom almost every day even if I have nothing to say, people at work seem to think I’m a normal human being. I have changed.

I’m rambling again. When me and Violet are together, our chat goes quiet. If one were to look at our chat history they might think something had happened for a month of my life, to cause me to not really say much at all to her and vice versa. It scares me for a very irrational reason: a stunning amount of my life has changed purely through a single chat window I’ve had on my computer for multiple years. I have no logs of it; I am purely going on the grace of Discord, that they will not suddenly disappear one day and take all of our words with it. Is Discord profitable? It won’t stay profitable. No proprietary chat solution has ever stayed profitable. It too, will fall.

When GDPR came into effect, Discord suddenly started allowing people to download their data in a huge, unmaintainable and irritating archive of data, that, if memory serves (it doesn’t!), only even contains your side of all conversations. This makes sense from a legal standpoint, but they are therefore the most useless conversation logs ever because of it. There are other archiving mechanisms: pullcord, and Discord History Tracker. These solutions work to actually create logs of your chats, rather than just giving you all your data and forgetting a conversation isn’t one-sided. Discord History Tracker actually is just a script on top of the Discord client itself that uses the client’s own mechanisms to download all the messages it can. It is a cumbersome and slow method, and it will take a very long time to download everything, but it is the safest and least easily bannable method of archiving your chats. It does not archive anything that is not a text message. Message attachments are only left in as URLs to their location on cdn.discordapp.com. pullcord downloads everything: custom emojis, all shared files/images, every server and channel and direct message your account can access, it will download. It also comes with a disclaimer on the readme that your account could get banned, because it’s using an unofficial Discord client to interface with a standard Discord user account, rather than a bot account.

Discord’s ToS does not allow this. They instead include gems such as:

You agree not to (and not to attempt to) (i) use the Service for any use or purpose other than as expressly permitted by these Terms;(ii) copy, adapt, modify, prepare derivative works based upon, distribute, license, sell, transfer, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, stream, broadcast, attempt to discover any source code, reverse engineer, decompile, disassemble, or otherwise exploit the Service or any portion of the Service, except as expressly permitted in these Terms; or (iii) use data mining, robots, spiders, or similar data gathering and extraction tools on the Service. No licenses or rights are granted to you by implication or otherwise under any intellectual property rights owned or controlled by the Company or its licensors, except for the permissions and rights expressly granted in these Terms.

Emphasis mine.

So when we are together, and our chat goes quiet, I feel a pit in stomach in an indescribable way sometimes. I’m with her, I’m happy, but the entire method and medium with which we talk has lost that relatively concrete property. The memories I have of our conversations in person will fade, and whenever I finally start to live with her, the writing of this post will be such a distant memory that I will likely not remember what exactly the conversation that prompted this was.

The years I have forgotten have left a hole that I can not entirely account for in my own history, and I can only hope that as time goes on and I have other to fill in the gaps, it might gain more clarity as years go by; but it could just as easily continue to disappear, and I sure have let it do so. I can not index and search through the words I’ve said in the bed before falling asleep.

Where am I going with this? It is the responsibility of any communication protocol to not do this shit. Be gentle with your users; be gentle with their conversations and value what they say. I could almost excuse Discord’s "no data gathering and extraction tools" rule, if they provided a local logging mechanism of some sort, but they do not. I am, additionally, learning that perhaps this is simply a thing I will need to learn to become easy with. Normally I am a very easy going person, willing to throw away the concrete and the permanent when it seems bothersome and constricting. Do I need to let go of this concreteness, and accept that all conversations are ephemeral by their very nature? Maybe I do, and perhaps I should also spend less time on the computer.

With IRC, at least you knew what you were getting into. It is ephemeral in a way Snapchat can only dream to be, because it only serves to repeat what was sent to it to anyone who happens to be listening. So if you wanted to have history, you’d keep logs, and if you really valued it you’d keep them for as long as you could. If you didn’t have them, maybe you could ask someone else in the channel? Or perhaps your IRC bouncer has been keeping logs for years while you’ve been barely checking a channel.

This is something that every chat service in existence today seems to throw to the wayside. Logs become the responsibility of the service provider, and the service provider isn’t very sentimental about the first time you told her you loved her, or the long nights you stayed up talking, or the fact that you called your chat’s pinned messages "the fridge" because you thought it was cute. The purpose is to provide that service of history, it is not to create ownership or identification with that history. Any chat service that provides archive downloading might only provide the messages you sent, which is a thing that makes legal sense, but not human sense.

The thought of running pullcord on a cronjob and having a consistent and up-to-date copy of all the conversations I’ve had on Discord sounds so nice. I’m afraid though that the amount of data I would download would get me noticed and banned though, and being banned is scary. I’d have the archives, but they’re only facsimiles, they’re not the chat window where I had all these memories in.

I’m not sure how to finish this but if anything, consider this a plea to all chat services to at the very least provide local logging, or at least allow me to use a utility like pullcord without issue. I have lost enough. I am confronted with the inevitability that my memories of the good times I have had will fade away in a more secret and quiet way than the bad memories have, and I want to at least put up a fight.

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