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The time has finally come. When my twin brother was taken hostage by the Russian government over 4 years ago, we tried to preserve his online life in amber for his return. This involved taking control of his accounts as best we could. Now Twitter and Google have announced inactive accounts will be deleted. I expect that they may be the head of a new trend that other online media will follow. It means that, rather than just letting the accounts sit, we will need to make sure they’re archived.

One reason this is hard is that, back in 2019, I did not expect that my brother would be unable to access his own accounts in 2023. We reset passwords, set up new verification points for emails and phone numbers. We’ve had to update those, as I moved to the U.S. and got a new phone number. Life goes on, hope lingers, and we really wanted the accounts to remain as they were the last time he saw them.

But it becomes risky to gamble. My librarian self is a bit annoyed with me for not having done this earlier. I realize now that it was always possible that these accounts could be closed. Now there’s certainty and I do not want to take the chance of forgetting one month to log into one of the accounts and have it disappear with all of its history. The only uncertainty, really, is how these inactive account policies will morph over the next decade that our brother may be in Russian detention.

We are fortunate to have this access. Some people who have lost loved ones have seen their social media as a memorial, but inaccessible. Now it is being deleted and that memorial, if it hasn’t been preserved offline, will be lost.

If these were my accounts, I would approach them differently. I don’t see social media and email, for the most part, as records that need keeping. If I were to lose all of them, there might be some minor pangs of regret. But important documents and communications have already been archived off onto more permanent, owned storage. I don’t believe in placing long term reliance on companies that are younger than me.

An Archive of One

Social media archives are pretty easy to grab. The silver lining to our circumstance is that these are not accounts that will gain any interactions in the mean time. No one is interacting with my brother and he, of course, is not interacting with anyone. So it is both a snapshot of today as well as a snapshot of December 29, 2018.

Twitter accounts are easy enough to download. Navigate to your account settings and request the download by clicking a button. An email will be sent to you with a message when it is ready. You can then download a compressed .zip file with your tweets. (If you use Periscope, there is a separate download for that.) The archive disappears after 4 days.

Many of these accounts require your email address to be verified. Fortunately, we had done this months prior but you may need to verify an address—especially if you need to update it—and then wait for a few days or weeks if the social media site won’t allow other changes or actions. I’ve noticed that Twitter particularly seems to have some sort of waiting period between changes.

Instagram was the same, although slightly more confusing to me. There is a Meta account center for all of your Meta-related accounts (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram). You can download your account information there but it does not download the individual app data. For Instagram, I needed to fill out this form to learn that I needed to access this Instagram link. On the desktop interface, you can access it through More > Your Activity.

Screenshot of the web page that is included in an Instagram data download.  Headings include Messages, Guides, Media Settings, Information About You.
Screenshot of downloaded Instagram archive showing content areas, whether you have relevant content or not.

I’m not really sure what all of that is. I have never had a chat with anyone and I cannot locate the Instagram chat function on a desktop browser (which is the only place I access Instagram). I may have to install the app and see who that random Russian who has added me to a chat group is.

The Instagram download can take up to 14 days to be generated and you appear to be able to send it to any email address, not just the one on your account. It seems to be based on how much data is in your account, though, as I got both my Instagram and Meta “your data is ready” prompts within minutes. My brother’s Instagram account with about 300 MB was ready to download in about 10 minutes.

As far as I can tell, all of these downloads are one way. You can’t import them into anything. They are a simple web page-based hub with all of your content hanging off it. It’s an easy, relatively time-neutral medium for archival. As long as you have a web browser, you’ll probably be able to access it.

Offline Email

Email was more difficult. My normal approach to email archive is to use Microsoft Outlook. Outlook has long stored email in mail files ending in a .pst extension. You can create your own .pst files too, and each .pst file will reside as a movable file on your computer. This is not the same as downloading each email as a .eml or other email format file. A .pst maintains an Outlook file and folder structure. This only works in Business versions of Outlook, not Home versions.

If you don’t have that, you can use a standalone Outlook .pst viewer tool. Google also offers a Google Workspace Migration tool but that will place your .pst file contents into your Google Workspace account.

This is less long term a strategy than HTML. But I have been using archived .pst files for about 20 years and Microsoft Outlook’s email dominance and prominence gives me some confidence that they’ll remain usable. HOWEVER. I do not store documents in email, so anything that is key is already printed or downloaded to PDF or some other long term format.

The difficulty came with an old AOL account. Normally, to add a new account to Outlook, you just add it. It will automatically configure the account (IMAP or POP plus SMTP) for ingoing and outgoing mail. For whatever reason, Outlook would not connect. I think that AOL was expecting a verification step—where I granted Outlook access to AOL—and Outlook never initiated the step.

Fortunately, there’s always more than one way to solve a problem. I turned to my favorite email app, Mozilla’s Thunderbird. You can connect it to multiple email accounts and it also has a local store. You can create folder in the local section and then copy or move email over to the entirely offline storage. This puts it on your computer and, if you’ve moved it, frees up what may be limited online storage for your email.

The next challenge with AOL is that it has a message ceiling for email clients. You can store as many emails as you want on AOL but you can’t access them all via a client. SharePoint users may recognize this issue, since document libraries could hold more than 5,000 or 10,000 items, but you couldn’t recall all of them. The limit isn’t on the quantity of documents stored, it’s on the number of documents you can retrieve in one view.

If you set up AOL for—the default imap server—you will hit the cap. As I learned with some web search, you need to use an export-specific imap server to get past that. It’s an AOL/Yahoo/OATH feature. So, when you set up your email client, use instead. This should allow you to interact with all of your email, even if it exceeds the 10,000 item cap.

It’s never that simple, is it? Even with that configuration change, AOL did weird things. Thunderbird would show a 1,000 or 10,000 items found count and then update it later. I can’t tell if that’s an AOL function or a Thunderbird one. Also, if you leave the Thunderbird client open, AOL will eventually time out. If you have a copy action running, you may see “15,820 of 14,345 messages copied”. I eventually figured out that, by double clicking the Thunderbird status, I could see the AOL server errors when it timed out.

So far, so good. When we originally tried to take control of our brother’s accounts in 2019, we were mostly successful. Some were beyond our reach. The verification phone number or access code provider was the phone held by the Russian state security services. But, for those accounts remaining, we have now been able to create a backup for most of them. I’m going to try to abide by whatever inactive account guidelines start to emerge. If I fail, though, at least I know the historical content, the memories, will be saved for his return in 2034.

I have left my partner my password manager password so that, if something were to ever happen to me, they could access my online accounts: email, social media, financial, and so on. This has made me realize I want to leave them an instruction or suggestion that they not bother to try to archive and keep my social media accounts. If I’ve died, it’s just one extra time-sensitive burden to contend with. Frankly, once I’m gone, I’m not sure why anyone would want to have access to any of this information any way.