Our Gchats, ourselves: Why chat excerpts make good literature

In her new memoir, Lena Dunham makes the chat log into art. So I dug into my own archives to see what I'd learn

Published October 1, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Lena Dunham on "Girls"                          (HBO)
Lena Dunham on "Girls" (HBO)

Lena Dunham’s memoir “Not That Kind of Girl” unsurprisingly features plenty of intimate, well-turned insights into Dunham's personal life. But one particular highlight is her excerpted journal entries, emails, instant message convos, and Gchats. At first, this practice may sound like a crutch. You might find yourself exclaiming aloud, “Lena Dunham got paid $3.7 million to write her memoir, and she’s just copying and pasting her IMs?”--but rest assured: she has made the chat transcript into an art.

For instance, this G-exchange, whittled down to a gem-like snippet:

me: I went home with your weird friend Barry
Mike: -------------
me: I know

Such casual chat logs perfectly capture the rhythm and cadence--the fragmentary narratives, the choppy banter--of online social life. And they provide a valuable insight into a certain species of addled millennial brain. (The word “millennial” gives me the shivers at this point, but there it is again.) Dunham isn't the first writer to use Gchats as literature: Tao Lin opened "Shoplifting from American Apparel" with a Gchat convo. Ben Lerner's "Leaving the Atocha Station" features a G-exchange between its protagonist and a friend in another country. For many members of this much-maligned generation, Gchat is a lot more than a procrastination tool and a way to keep friends minutely updated on your scrolling thoughts during work hours. It has become a tool for ex post facto self-analysis, a record of witticisms, a digital-age social diary that chronicles your evolving relationships and moods.

And so, being a young woman in my mid-twenties, allow me to interject my own unsolicited experience. I consider myself something of an expert on the subject of re-reading your own chat transcripts. I have been instant messaging since I was in the fifth grade. Like absolutely everyone I knew at that time, I lived and died by my afternoon chat sessions on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). In middle school, I could be reached through my carefully chosen screen name, which was a combination of my favorite food, English muffins, and the year I was born. Back then, I was the queen of crafting romantically ambiguous Away Messages: “brb guys…staring out the window dreaming of SOME1…”

Every day when I came home from school, I would sign on and chat with roughly fifteen people at a time, almost all of which I had just seen earlier that day. (In comparison, the fact that Gchat only permits four windows to be open at one time is both a travesty and a blessing.) Those were the days when we first learned to slough off the burden of writing in full sentences. Numbers were subbed in for words, and we found shorthand for everything. I LOL’ed and TTYL’ed with the best of them. It was a culture, a way of life, and because it was middle school, there was nothing more important.

With puberty as a looming dot on a fast-approaching horizon, these chats became a venue for deep, terrifying, social self-evaluation. In my new turn-of-the-millennium middle school life, it was a popular practice for girls to save AIM chats they had with boys for the purposes of assessing them later. Back then, however, we had to manually save them to our home computers. I created a folder called “Algebra” in order to throw my parents and big sisters off the scent. Then, in the midst of sleepovers, my friends and I would analyze these transcripts. The conclusion was always something like, “He likes you. You can tell because he capitalized the L in rofL.”

Now, as an adult, I no longer engage in five-hour chats with my pint-sized crush. I Gchat with my husband every once in a while to ask him what time he’s planning on coming home and to send him recipes I’ve discovered on Pinterest. In looking through my chats with him, there is very little to evaluate except for when I randomly asked him the following in a chat on May 22nd:

me: hey, are my eyebrows bad?

We see each other far too much to have an interesting G-lationship. But on the whole, my instant messaging habits have shifted completely. Gchat has morphed from a frenzied, focused after-school activity to a kind of workday background noise.

The person I talk to most through this medium is my sister, a human who lives roughly 1,700 miles away from me. She and I basically have an ongoing, all-day conversation that begins with “hey” and ends when we are done work for the evening. These talks are where I receive all of my news:

My sister: can we talk about this bear in a hammock?
me: HUH
My sister: http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/31/us/florida-bear-in-hammock/

And life advice:

My sister: Protip: every time you get a check, please put 20% away for tax season
me: thanks, DAD!
Haha kidding
great advice, dawg 

Also, she gets real-time dispatches from the front lines of my life:

me: a couple just broke up right next to me at the coffee shop
My sister: tell me about it
mei felt like i should be mediating
he wanted to break up and she wanted to stay together
and he was doing a terrible job of being clear
My sisteroh god
meyeah, so at first she and i were both confused
we both kind of thought he just wanted to work it out
but no, he was done

There’s value in rereading these seemingly mundane chats. They are meandering mini time-capsules, old emotional landscapes recreated in weirdly vivid detail. If AIM archives offer flashes of bygone drama, Gchat transcripts may be our closest e-chronicle of real life. Google saves all of your conversations for you, whether you ask it to or not. Whole undramatic expanses of chat are available for perusal days and months and years down the line.

You can search a single word or phrase you half-remember from a long-ago exchange and Gmail will pull up the whole conversation in all its boring glory. Moments that felt mundane at the time can be talmudically parsed after they gain meaning. Budding relationships are invisibly transcribed: the whole slow wind-up, the building intimacy, the tense aftermath. Now I look back on chats with my sister that I never meant to save, and I realize: she actually won that fight. Or, oh wow, I was lame.

Lena Dunham, undisputed bard of a small slice of our generation, knew what she was doing here. The chat log may be the epistolary memoir of our time, our new literary legacy. Embarrassing and dull as that legacy will be, I’m still very glad to have it.

By Christy O'Shoney

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Gchat Internet Life Lena Dunham Not That Kind Of Girl