When most of us think of the story of our relationships, we recall conversations, experiences, feelings. Artifacts, too—the ticket stubs, dried flowers, handwritten letters, Polaroids. If you could digitally archive an online version of it for a kind of scrapbook of your “story,” would you? Is anyone that masochistic? (Yes.)
Writing at Wired, Molly McHugh ponders a new app called Shryne that offers to do exactly that—cull data from email, texts, chats, and certain social media to create a kind of timeline or scrapbook of any relationships of your choosing—friends, siblings, parents, coworkers—if they exist in the online space, and let’s be honest, name one that doesn’t? But it’s best, most tantalizing and terrifying use is clearly using it to chronicle all exes, so holy shit. McHugh writes:
In concept, Shryne makes a lot of sense. For family and friends and even acquaintances, a beautiful landing page of your most important relationships is a novel idea. It’s wonderful seeing a friendship evolve, or remembering a loved one who’s passed. But if you’re going to wade into these tricky emotional waters, there is one category that should be avoided by all but the strongest swimmers: your exes. Leave them in that box under the bed, and whatever corner of the Internet deleted data is banished to.
McHugh says this after having immediately used the app to chronicle her ex. And the app’s creator, Aldo Cherdabayev, is certainly aware of its emotional impact. “It can be quite surreal to see a relationship from start to finish in one feed, and each archive becomes a powerful biographical milestone,” he tells her.
Powerful biographical milestone, sure! Other options include: painful nightmare, existential crisis, record of your romantic failures, fuel for an unending crush, evidence of your own utterly banal tendency to make the same jokes with everyone. But c’mon, even the name—Shryne—suggests something outside of what we might think of as “healthy reminiscing.” We build shrines to objects of reverence, after all. This is an app for total weirdos. I love it.
But as McHugh notes, scrapbooks already exist for a lot of people—in shoeboxes. Only those have the dubious distinction of at least being more deliberately curated. In McHugh’s box, for instance, there’s a doorknob that still feels “like a fishhook tugging at [her] gut.” The doorknob was a symbol of better times—the night early on in courtship when she and a boyfriend drunkenly busted into a construction site and nabbed doorknobs. Her doorknob lived next to his on the mantle of their apartment, then got chucked into a box when they broke up a few years later. And so doorknob guy was naturally who she chose to en-Shryne.
I have such a shoebox, mostly filled with letters. There are a few sketches from a painter, a comic from an old boyfriend. These objects may be all that’s left of those love stories, and though they barely tell but a fraction of the story, they are the greatest hits of a (former) fan, not the meticulous collection of a completist. And it’s not as if I don’t remember how those relationships all turned out (shitty).
As McHugh tries Shryne on doorknob guy, she goes in with the most natural of concerns—is this thing not just going to feed your worst impulses to obsess over the past? And how accurate can it really be? Answers: Yes and depends. The past, she notes, is messy enough as it is, but the digital detritus available for culling is limited, both by the number of accounts Shryne draws upon and the human tendency to still live some experiences in person. Also, ahem, some of us get pissed or hurt or upset and delete shit. What’s left is, no doubt about, incomplete and flawed. McHugh:
Even the stuff we keep can be messy, even meaningless. It was a little depressing when I saw nearly all the archived emails from another relationship read something like Can you get bread? Do we have milk? followed by a Kanye shrug GIF. Seeing that all our communication was so banal made me think maybe it wasn’t such a great relationship—but it’s hard to tell if that’s a fair assessment or not. Shryne can both minimize some interactions, while giving others outsized emotional heft.
She notes that while it draws from reliable sources like Instagram and your camera roll, it ignores other repositories where valuable history lurks: Amazon purchases, Google maps; Spotify playlists. Completists would reel right now, but so will anyone using the app when they go back over the texts and conversations and pictures that create a different picture of the relationship than you imagined—for better or for worse—only to leave you scrambling to fill in the rest.
This is notably different than browsing a shoebox where you put the things that you had or wanted to keep in there for a reason, and you know the emotional potency they hold. There are no surprises, except maybe the way your feelings change in relationship to them over time, or as you enter new relationships. What used to be your greatest love letter ever might be eventually trumped by a newer, better love.
But compare this to modern-day relationships whose trajectories may exist entirely online or in texts. If that old box of mementos is full of ghosts, it’s safe to say the digital version houses apparitions capable of actively stalking you. That was the focus of a timely piece at NYMag by Maureen O’Connor about how the social media generation never really breaks up due not just to the fact that their relationships can remain frustratingly vague and boundary-less, but because whatever sort of relationship it is, it lives on digitally in ways comically inescapable.
Even if you only have sex once, you will spend time with your hookup when he finds you on Facebook, appears in a mutual friend’s Instagram, or texts about a weird bump he found on his penis. Older generations didn’t have a word for this kind of thing—they couldn’t have. But these are, in fact, relationships. Even casual dates have expansive biographies to plow through and life narratives you can follow for years. You hear about their hangovers when you check Twitter for the morning news. You see their new apartments when you browse Facebook at work. They can jump into your pants whenever they want by sending text messages that land in your pocket. Online, you watch your exes’ lives unfold parallel to yours—living, shifting digital portraits of roads not taken with partners you did not keep.
But if the current digital landscape can be a carnival funhouse mirror of exes ripe for the archiving, then at least Shryne is giving you a place to focus in on only the relationships you want to preserve. It is not possible to think of an app like Shryne and not at least initially think of it as a kind of reverse Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In that film, distraught lovers haul bags of mementos into a nondescript office somewhere in the Valley to have them each precisely pinpointed and linked to memory, then obliterated. Only Shryne sets it up so you never have to forget.
But is that a good thing? McHugh found that reducing her four year relationship to something she could skim in a few minutes was eery enough. Yes, there was room for growth and self-knowledge: She saw certain patterns in fights and communication emerge that were actually insightful. But it was also depressing: Here was a relationship she knew to be richer than this digital portrait.
So perhaps the real question is: Is it worth it? Or: Do you trust yourself to preserve only the relationships that will benefit your psychic health? Will it be helpful or harmful for you to dive into the digital detritus of relationships past? Only one way to find out.