I Dove Into My WhatsApp Archives. Here’s What I Learnt About Growing Up
In July 2016, there was Peter.

Almost everyone has a Peter in their lives. This is that friend from the opposite gender who falls into the grey zone of adult friendships that culture hasn’t quite taught us to navigate: more than platonic friends, less than romantic partners.

From the start, we nailed a crucial part of enduring friendships: we shared the same sense of humour. As a result, we texted excessively about anything and everything. One time, we saw each other thrice a week. Any normal person will tell you that was a red flag; no “platonic” friendship crosses into ‘romance’ territory without someone getting hurt.

By July 2017, there was no more Peter.

This week, for the first time since we cut ties, I pulled up our chat from my Whatsapp archives. The last message was sent on 25 October 2016, after which we migrated our conversation to Facebook messenger. Our chat history was only four months long, but it took me more than an hour to scroll through everything.

I once read that the social media generation never really breaks up, destined to live two or three degrees of separation from our exes and former friends. Unless we’re committed to purging all mention of them from our social media accounts and texts (including those with friends), people we no longer speak to continue to be an integral part of our online history.

Peter is no longer on my Facebook, Instagram, or even phonebook. But he lives on in my Whatsapp archives, a reminder of how something blindingly intense and beautiful can endure despite having irrevocably concluded.

My Whatsapp is possibly the most personal and revealing part of my phone. The archives are a graveyard of both dead and dying friendships; many are connections I’m not ready to let go of, even though they’ve seemingly run their course.

There are Jess and Kathy, two girls from university I once bonded with over similar relationship struggles. Sarah and Rachel, both close friends of an ex, checked in with me after my break up and we ended up becoming confidantes for more than half a year.

There are also the people I’ve desperately waited for replies from, only to receive none. Their chats have been relegated to the archives so I can avoid the piercing sadness that comes with encountering them over and over again.

There are multiple names I no longer recognise, all contacts I added to my phonebook for work. I don’t remember why I kept them around even after they served their ‘purpose’.

Then there are the group chats that once constantly lit up my notifications throughout the day with inside jokes and trivial commentary. They’ve gone radio silent for almost a year and are unlikely to pick up again.

Most recently, there was Chan, who sent me a lengthy text on New Year’s Eve to say that he would like to catch up this year. We were kind of tight in university. I left his text unread for a few hours, telling myself I’d get to it eventually.

I never replied him.

When previously pressed for reasons why certain friendships just don’t work out, I would insist on the standard but simplistic line of reasoning. If these connections could die so quickly, surely they were not worth it after all.

I would also say, “Life got in the way.”

It’s an accurate answer, but it’s also incomplete. What I really meant was, “Life got in the way, and I let it.”

As anyone who has tried reviving an expired friendship will tell you, a forced friendship is worse than a faded one, especially if it wasn’t built to weather all seasons to begin with.

Those with Jess and Kathy were only meant to tide me through a period in life. They provided the solace I needed from people who understood my relationship issues. Once my relationship ended, our Whatsapp texts grew more sporadic, until they ceased entirely.

Still, I am the sum of all the people I once loved and cared about. The death of a friendship doesn’t invalidate the fact that it was once alive and thriving. If anything, it reminds me of one of growing up’s most painful lessons: how to appreciate what I have while it lasts.

In their own ways, and for significant albeit brief periods in my life, Peter, Jess and Kathy, and Sarah and Rachel, shaped a part of who I turned out to be, even if I would hesitate to “catch up” with them today.

Once upon a time, these were connections I thought would last, and I had no reason to suspect otherwise. Unlike relationships, the decline of a friendship is less obvious.

But life is full of patterns, you just need to pay attention. So I’ve learnt to spot the signs of a friendship taking its last breath—at least on Whatsapp.

The most common thread throughout these Whatsapp chats are the proposed meet-ups that never materialise. The last text usually resembles a variation of, “Sure, let me know”. Clearly, these four words are the least aggressive and direct way of letting a friendship fade without drama.

Another familiar red flag indicating a friendship’s last days is the strained rehashing of well-worn topics and memories from ‘fun times’ long ago. It becomes increasingly difficult to talk about university camp when you’re well into your third job. Eventually, this discomfort of growing out of one’s old skin shows and becomes too exhausting to overlook.

As a sobering line from Bojack Horseman goes, “When you look at someone through rose-tinted glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.”

Looking through my Whatsapp archives was a modern day out-of-body experience. While I distinctly remember the feelings associated with these faded friendships and connections, I don’t recognise the person with these feelings anymore.

For instance, the last message I’d sent to an ex-colleague sounded overly enthusiastic. I thought this would turn into a solid friendship, but we’ve only superficially caught up since I left the job three years ago.  

My chats from 2015 reminded me that I used to have seemingly infinite hope and faith in humans when I was younger. I would heartily throw myself into developing connections, regardless of potential failure and rejection.

Then sometime in 2016, I became a little more selfish and selective with who I spent my time and energy on. As date stamps on my Whatsapp chats showed, I could go a few days without texting anyone.

In 2017, I actively spoke only to people I genuinely wanted to keep around, even if this meant significantly cutting down my social circle. I made 50% less plans, yet felt much more fulfilled.

It’s only been a month into 2018, but I have sent more “tbh idk what im doing with my life” texts than I have in the rest of my 20s. There’s a paralysing fear that seizes you in your late-20s when you realise you’ve gotten this far merely by winging it. The only difference is I am less afraid of admitting that now.

While I might not have liked the person I used to be, I still experience an acute sense of loss as I make room for a different version of her every year.

I know, it’s funny how much a few kilobytes of data can mean as you grow up. By funny, I mean it categorically sucks.

Yet more than a place to mourn dead friendships, Whatsapp archives map my personal growth.  

Unfortunately, sometime in 2014, all my messages were wiped clean after I updated my iOS. This rude shock left me feeling violated. Intimate ‘evidence’ of who I was had been robbed from me without my consent, and the emptiness was suffocating.

It’s strange that out of everything that could have happened, staring at a blank Whatsapp home screen evoked the rawest form of heartache.

Even though I only have three years worth of memories now, they feel like 10.

So I may be well into adulthood, but I only just stopped being a child. All it took was losing crucial personal data I never thought I would be forced to part with. Until I fundamentally internalised that uncertainty is the crux of life, I barely knew what it meant to grow up.

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