For anyone who fears they may forget something in 30 years, one Yale student’s new Web site may be the solution, whether users are afraid of growing senile or of being invaded by an alien race.
“Well … if the world hasn’t blown up or the new world order hasn’t arrested the lot of us and assuming the Internet hasn’t crashed, leaving all of us to rummage around surviving on duct tape and our wits alone …. I will also assume that if you’re reading this that you should be watchful of the giant Alien lurching silently behind you,” one user of Futureme.org said to himself in a letter due to be delivered Sept. 7, 2008.
Conceived in 2002 over a dinner of sushi and beer, FutureMe.org is the brainchild of Matthew Sly SOM ’07 and his friend and Web site designer Jay Patrikios. FutureMe.org allows users to write letters to themselves which will be delivered at any time from 30 days to 30 years later. This e-mail twist on a childhood assignment is “based on the principle that memories are less accurate than e-mails,” according to the FutureMe.org Web site, and has already processed more than 200,000 such letters, Sly said.
The site’s popularity skyrocketed after the Associated Press featured it in a story last month. Following the rise in site traffic, Sly and Patrikios installed Google Ads on the site to cover the server fee, but Patrikios said he and Sly did not create the site to generate a profit.
To avoid FutureMe.org’s becoming an e-mail “laundry or dry cleaning reminder service,” Sly said he set the minimum time frame for letters to 30 days. Still, Sly said 75 percent of the letters are “disappointingly short term” and scheduled to be sent in less than three years.
The Web site also allows users to view e-mails that others have made public. Subject matter in recent letters ranges from obese people chiding themselves to lose weight to soldiers pondering life before they leave for the Iraq War to love letters recounting tales of how husbands and wives met.
“I feel like everyone’s mom when I read those [public entries], peeking into their room reading their diary,” Patrikios said. “Anyone can do it. Anyone can write and anyone can read.”
Satisfied users have sent letters to the creators as well as themselves, Sly said, citing a letter from Jesse Hamilton, a man who developed trauma-induced memory loss after he was electrocuted by 7,200 volts in 1981.
Hamilton said in an e-mail that he was not trying to “leave something behind,” with his FutureMe.org e-mails, but to “send something forward.”
Yale professor Keith Chen, an expert in behavioral economics, said writing letters can be a way to control future emotions. Chen said it may be difficult for people to make sound decisions when the are in an agitated state — a “projection bias.” But by writing letters, people can remind themselves of the emotions they were experiencing once the anger has passed.
“When you to go the FutureMe Web site, some letters are in the form, ‘I feel really [bad] right now, just like every time me and my boyfriend argue — my boyfriend is a really selfish, terrible person, but in a week that argument will have passed … My future self in the happy, blissful state is not going to remember just how terrible this person makes me feel,'” Chen said. “Unfortunately, this is a really common pattern.”
There are limits to what the Web site can do. If a user’s e-mail address changes, the letters will still be sent to the old account, unless the user takes advantage of the site’s “account management system” to alter the delivery addresses themselves.
For some FutureMe.org users, the idea of keeping up technology and updating e-mail addresses could be a difficult task.
“I cannot guarantee, even to myself, that I will care enough to maintain an active e-mail address, nor for how long,” Hamilton said. “I’ll see how getting my first e-mail from myself affects my emotions. Then I’ll know whether it’s going to be something I want to continue.”
But Patrikios said he hopes users like Hamilton will have the stamina to keep up with changing technology, as those stories are often the most fascinating and touching.
“When I read these public entries, I’m trying to think of what else is as fragile and resilient as a human being,” Patrikios said. “Some people are just like, ‘This is the worst year of my life, but things are going to get better.’ I’m thinking, ‘Maybe if this is the worst year of your life, then things are going down the toilet,’ but they never think so.”
FutureMe.org will soon feature a rating system designed to allow “the best letters to percolate to the top,” Sly said. The creators have also begun discussions with publishers to compile site highlights for a coffee table book, and said they are planning to launch a sister site titled “PastMe”.
Sly said he thinks the site’s appeal lies in the catharsis of communicating to one’s future self, but Yale computer science professor Stanley Eisenstat said in an e-mail that it simply represents the evolution of a time-tested tradition.
“People have put letters in time capsules for many years and will undoubtedly continue to do so,” Eisenstat said.