If only I had a penny for each time that a friend messaged panic-stricken, asking if I knew how to save WhatsApp chats when shifting from an iPhone to an Android. I wish I could reply in the affirmative. Such messages are not surprising. With WhatsApp emerging as the primary mode of communication in the past decade, our chat histories have unintentionally morphed into digital versions of a cardboard memory box. While that used to lie at the back of our closets, this virtual one stays close to us at all times.
These chat histories have become so important that the thought of losing them stops people from shifting from one operating system to another. For Yukti Shiwankar, a 21-year-old law student from Nagpur, this fear of losing precious memories is crippling. “I talk to my partner on WhatsApp, and when we aren’t talking, reading those chats keeps the bond alive,” she adds.
This bookkeeping of memories isn’t new. Rather, it goes back thousands of years, taking on new shapes with time. Bhowmik, a 37-year-old interior designer currently residing in Kenya, reminisces about how he used to write down, by hand, all the SMSs he shared with special people in his life — even going so far as categorising them as funny, personal, motivational. I too wrote down a Facebook Messenger chat with an ex-boyfriend in my diary.
Today, texting has emerged as the favoured means of communication. Love blooms, matures and is recorded over a tiny screen for so many. Prasanna, a 33-year-old based in Colorado, gifted his wife a scrapbook of their WhatsApp chat screenshots after a year of long-distance romance. When asked why that was the perfect gift, he elaborates on how their relationship unfurled on chats — with the flirting and getting-to-know one another happening over text. “Our chat history was rich, rife with memories, jokes, catchphrases only the two of us would get, and trivia about each other,” he says.
Even though storing chat histories, “just in case” life orchestrates massive, dramatic sweeps, isn’t a conscious factor in encouraging people to click ‘yes’ on their daily backups, it comes in handy. Anmol Dhawan, a 26-year-old product owner from Gurugram, whose childhood friend passed away five years ago, has chats dating back to the Blackberry Messenger days.
Dhawan says that while the initial intense grief has subsided, the chat histories are a salve on the wound when the pain starts flares up. “I like to go back and see what our banter used to be like, how I’d express my feelings, what pictures we’d share. There’s less sadness and more gratitude now,” she adds.
But beyond an active memory-keeping device, these chat histories also store an encyclopaedic knowledge of our ever-evolving selves — a treasure trove of information about the humdrum mundanity of our lives that, if it were not for these conversations, we would inevitably lose out on.
For Leanne Sonia Pereira, a 24-year-old management student from Goa studying in Leeds, reading old chats with her therapist is an eye-opening exercise, especially when it comes to a relationship that ended badly. “Back then, I refused to believe that my boyfriend was in the wrong because I had put him on a pedestal. I would disagree with my therapist all the time. Reading the chats after a while helped me think differently about the situation.”
If things stay as they are, we might be the first generation to leave behind such rich data of our lives. Maybe the generations that follow would love to pore over it. Let’s just hope that there’s someone who loves us enough to wipe some specific chat histories out when we’re gone and save us all the embarrassment.
Delhi-based Nona Uppal writes on love and relationships. She is on Instagram @nonauppal