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Dear Me

What if. . . you could send yourself an e-mail scheduled for delivery 50 years from now?

March 25, 2007|J.R. Moehringer | J.R. Moehringer is a senior writer for West.

Like many young people, Matt Sly and Jay Patrikios spent a fair amount of time thinking about the future. Then one day they were thinking about the past, playing Trivial Pursuit with a group of friends, and they thought: Wouldn't it be cool if your Past Self could communicate with your Future Self--via e-mail?

How lame, their friends said, laughing.

But Sly and Patrikios knew the idea was ingenious.

And they soon set about making it real.

Sly, a 30-year-old Oakland native who studies business at the Yale School of Management, wrote the software. Patrikios, a 32-year-old New Yorker who now works for Amazon, helped name and design the website, Together they defined their website's one simple, if slightly sci-fi, mission: to receive self-addressed e-mails and store them for delivery on whatever far-off date the e-mailer chooses.

Now, four years after its launch, has become a quiet phenomenon, receiving nearly 400,000 e-mails, millions of hits and worldwide media attention. (Sly and Patrikios also suspect their idea inspired creative thievery by the makers of "The Lake House," starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, but that may just be normal entrepreneurial paranoia.)

Sad, funny, scary, shocking, the e-mails posted on are so compelling, so human, that Sly and Patrikios recently got the idea to collect the best of them in a book, "Dear Future Me," to be released by HOW Books this fall.

"Some of the e-mails made us laugh out loud," Sly and Patrikios write in their introduction, "some had us pretty scared, and some of them had us putting our hands up to our faces, peeking through our fingers and hoping that the people who wrote them would turn out OK."

For instance, there is the Alzheimer's patient who e-mails his Future Self regularly in order to maintain some sense of continuity. And there are the e-mailers who send themselves suicide notes. (It's unclear just how they intend to read them.)

Sly says the most moving and memorable e-mails are written by U.S. soldiers in Iraq. One begs his Future Self to survive: "Please live long enough to read this email." Another tries to record how it feels to be safe, addressing his Present Self and Future Self in the same breath: "You are home on leave with the woman of your dreams. Make love to her often, take her shopping, laugh, enjoy her company. In a few days you will have to go back to that [expletive] hole Iraq and it will be another 3 months before you can hold her again. Savor every second with her."

Most of the great philosophers have struggled to define this elusive thing called Self. Plato, Descartes, Locke, Hume, they all gave slightly different answers to the same haunting question: Who am I? freshens this age-old question by reframing it in e-mail-ese, the telegraphic code of our daily lives, which creates a sharper sense of immediacy than the prosaic letter. Forced to address ourselves through the language and lens of a new technology, one that stretches and shortens our notion of time, we can't help but ask: Is this me at 42 the same me I will be at 62? Am I just one me in the midst of a single unified narrative, or a series of me's connected by one strand of memories, one starting point, one name?

In 30 years, or 50 years, who will be the "you" in that sonorous announcement: "You've got mail"?

Sly and Patrikios decided to charge nothing for the use of their time-transcending e-mail server. Sly says he's always believed the Internet was meant to be free and a force for good. Besides, he adds, "we're not saving children here."

And yet the website may save some people from depression, loneliness or worse. Many e-mails reveal a soul on the brink, and it's only the unblinking hindsight of that Future Me holding back catastrophe.

"These letters stay with me," Patrikios says.

Though nearly all the e-mailers have a uniform disregard for the niceties of spelling, punctuation, capitalization and grammar, they vary widely in tone. Some send virtual love letters to their Future Selves. Others send hate mail. ("Okay, let me start this letter off with this: YOU SUCK.") Some flatter their Future Selves as sage elders. Others plead with their Future Selves as if they are hanging judges--which makes some sense. Since Future Me must cope with the aftermath of Present Me's diet, addictions and dental negligence, Future Me figures to be Past Me's toughest critic. "Forgive me for everything I've done wrong," one e-mailer writes. "I was weak."

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