In 2005, when Nick Acemoglu was 23, he got a letter from his grandmother, Doris. Nothing odd there, except that he received it two weeks after she had died—and she had written it 10 years before that. In the last years of her life Doris suffered a stroke that had left her severely impaired, but here, in Nick’s hands, in the strong, capable handwriting he knew so well, were the perfectly articulated words of someone he thought he’d never hear from again.
Several years before, when Nick was about 12, what Doris had done was to write three separate letters, one each to her daughter Nancy (Nick’s mother) and to Nick and his older brother, Tom, and lodge the letters with Nancy. What she wanted to tell them in the letters was what she hoped they might do with their lives, what they all meant to her and how important they were. She ended the letter to Nick with “have a wonderful life.” And what Nick received was a message in the present, written in the past, to be delivered in the future.
Where’s the letter?
“The emotional impact of that letter was tremendous,” says Nick—and the timing happened to coincide with the moment when he had to choose a subject for his master’s thesis in design at New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA). “Death was sort of all around me then,” he says. “My father had just died and I was in the London Underground on July 7, 2005 [the day terrorists tried to blow up Tube trains and buses; Nick was attending design workshops in London through his undergraduate school, Sage College of Albany in upstate New York]. When you lose someone you care about, there’s not a day goes by when you don’t think about them.” Someone unearthed a video of Nick’s father, aged 27, clowning around. “It was very moving seeing someone just like me, but at an age when I didn’t know him. Perhaps he experienced the world in the same way I do, perhaps not. I don’t know. It was heartbreaking, really,” Nick goes on. “When he died and there was no letter, I thought, ‘Shit, where’s the letter?'”
At that time all Nick’s friends were on MySpace; before that they’d been on Friendster, and before that on Makeoutclub, all precursors to Facebook, LinkedIn and the rest of the myriad connectors that we know as social networking now. But Nick found himself bothered about the way everything in people’s lives was being instantly made public. “That whole idea—whatever you do, broadcast it—is so wrong. I believe there are some things you should hold on to.” Not necessarily forever; but giving them time to leave a little space for reflection and the creation of memories in our minds, maybe. “My brother’s wedding videos were up on the internet the same day he was married,” says Nick. “That’s all wrong. It’s important to look forward to stuff, anticipate things, value them. And that requires waiting a bit and adding a point of reflection.” That was when it came to him in his sleep, he says, that what he should do was build a place where people could send video messages to the future; and that’s exactly what he’s done.
For all e-ternity
Working with a friend from SVA, Jeff Nolte of MoxieMedia, Nick built his site. On E-ternal.net (“The dot.com domain is owned by some 45-year-old guy who’s been sitting on it for 12 years, but he refuses to sell it to me,” Nick says ruefully. “I said to him, ‘How old are you?’ but he just didn’t get it.”), starting November 9, people can post any sort of video message they want and have it sent to anyone (as long as he or she has an email address) whenever they choose. So far Nick has spent about $12,000 on the site; he isn’t interested in how or whether the site will make money. “I don’t really care,” he says, shrugging. E-ternal will be free.
The original inspiration for the look of the site was, unlikely as it may seem, Pan Am advertising from the ’50s and ’60s. “Air travel was so new at the time—you had to get people to trust you in order to get them into a bus that flew—so the work had to look trustworthy and sunshiny,” Nick explains. As time went on the look “got a bit crunchy,” Nick’s way of describing torn paper with a scrapbook feel, but he’s pared it down since then, and it’s simpler now. There isn’t an aspect of the project he hasn’t anticipated—including what happens if he gets run over by a bus, or if a poster or receiver does (safeguards are in place).
The posted videos will be totally secure—Nick isn’t interested in accessing them himself and has set the site up so he can’t—but he says he’s been surprised at how many people want to share their postings with him anyway. He’s been testing and uploading onto the site for the past year and has more than 200 messages so far. One is from two 70-year-olds waving their hands in the air and saying “Wooo-ooo,” two elderly ghosts leaving a message for their grandson; another is a friend’s message to his about-to-be wife on the eve of their wedding. Nick himself has added his own contribution: a record of his baby niece’s first day on earth, for her to see when she turns 18. “If she’s really bummed and doesn’t understand the world, it could maybe go to her five years earlier, I suppose,” he says.
Every message must be scheduled for a minimum of one week ahead—this ensures the future part. “My goal this year,” Nick says, “is to hit 10,000 messages by New Year’s Eve.” Ten thousand little videos, waiting to be released like electronic doves into the future.—LUCY SISMAN