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The case for keeping all your email forever

More or less by accident, I wound up with more than 25 years of email at my fingertips. Here’s why I’m glad I never deleted anything.

The case for keeping all your email forever
[Source photo: Golden Sikorka/Getty Images]

So help me, I never set out to hold onto all my email indefinitely. Actually, for many years, I didn’t keep track of it at all. As I bounced from ISP to ISP, I’d switch email addresses regularly, never bothering to preserve any messages along the way.

But over time, I got in the habit of keeping my email and never deleting anything. Today, I have more than 4 TB of the stuff squirreled away, primarily in a paid Google Workspace account. I dig into this trove all the time and benefit from it in multiple ways, so my goal is to preserve it, and future emails I get, for as long as I possibly can. I’m here to say that you should at least consider doing the same with your email.

Thinking back, the moment that made all of this plausible was Google’s introduction of Gmail in 2004. By offering great search features and a then-implausible 1 GB of storage for free, it suggested that saving vast amounts of email for future reference was something you might want to do. Eventually, 1 GB stopped sounding like all the space anyone would ever need, but Google kept increasing its standard allotment and let users pay for even more. Starting in 2008, I used Gmail for as much of my email as possible, and virtually never clicked the trash-can icon.

As I got used to Gmail’s save-everything philosophy, I realized that I had more of my ancient, pre-Gmail mail hanging around than I remembered, and it might be fun to revisit it. I even still owned a decrepit Zenith laptop that contained some messages dating as far back as 1994. Using a USB cable, a serial adapter, and a once-essential piece of software called LapLink, I managed to transfer them over to my modern Mac. I also had a few CD-ROMs of archived Lotus Notes work email from 1998 to 2008 that my then-employer’s IT staffers had created when I failed to delete stuff from the server on my own. With a little tinkering, I was able to suck those messages up into a Gmail account I created for that purpose, giving me ready access to them for the first time in years.

After rescuing those old messages a few years ago, I ended up with . . . well, not all my email from the past 29 years, but a pretty sizable percentage of it. Which brings me to a question you may already be itching for me to get around to answering: What is the point of trying to save all your email indefinitely?

I’ve found several key benefits to retaining it en masse:

It’s the closest thing I have to a diary. Every so often, I wonder when I took a trip, attended a Broadway play, bought something, or met somebody. Much of the time, a quick search of my email tells me. Even theoretically disposable messages such as receipts for online purchases can prove to have unexpected long-term value.

Some of the messages mean a lot. Email helped kill off the era when people sent paper letters to each other with any frequency. So, much of my correspondence with family members and friends from the 1990s onward has been in electronic form. Some of those people have since departed, and I’m grateful that I still have their missives to remember them by.

There are little bits of history in there. As a tech journalist, the single type of email I get most often is pitches from PR people suggesting that I write about their clients. When new, they’re generally not that scintillating. But over time, some of them become fascinating. In 2001, for example, I got a pitch proposing that I interview Reed Hastings (who?), the CEO of a startup called Netflix (what?), back when the company rented DVDs by mail and its big talking point was that VHS tapes were passé. If you’re not a journalist, you might not have anything akin to that—but maybe you’ve got other sorts of ancient messages that retain the ability to provoke nostalgia.

By now, you might be tempted to point out that the percentage of old messages that fall into these buckets must be tiny, and I’m storing several metric tons of old email I’ll never, ever need again. That’s true. But it doesn’t always become clear that a particular message is worth saving until years later. And the detritus is pretty much invisible, since I use search to pull up the messages I care about. It would involve much more thinking and effort to try and prune out the junk than to keep it all.

I do have several unsolved conundrums with this practice, though. At the moment, most of my old mail is in Gmail, but I’m using Hey for most of my current email needs. Hey doesn’t have a keep-everything philosophy: It gives you 100 GB of space, with no option to pay for more. I’ve been exporting some of my Hey mail back into Gmail for archival purposes, but it’s a messy, unreliable process, and I’m not sure what I’ll do over the long haul.

Speaking of the long haul, it’s not clear how I can ensure that all this email continues to exist, no matter what. I’m pretty confident that Gmail isn’t going anywhere in the immediate future, but what happens if Google falls on hard times in, say, 2033 and gets out of the email business? Or even just starts charging so much I can’t reasonably cling to an incomprehensible quantity of email? Not to get morbid, but should I take steps to ensure that other people have access to at least some of my archive in the unimaginable event that I’m not around anymore?

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on any of these matters, or even sensible arguments that hoarding email is a sign of a diseased mind and I should burn it all in a digital bonfire. Either way, I’m at hmccracken@fastcompany.com. Did I mention yet that I plan to keep any messages you send me forever?

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Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World. More More

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