In a world of curated social media feeds, Sharon Lam revisits the beautiful chaos of her notes app.
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Original illustration by Sofia Drescher
“Since the note is in my notebook, it presumably has some meaning to me.” So began Joan Didion’s seminal essay On Keeping a Notebook. Since the note “oh shit this song that just came on It sounds like it sounds like The hey Arnold theme song hell yea wait wait Where da fuck is my rooibos tea” is in my notes app, it presumably has no meaning or even sense. This was my immediate takeaway after going through some 500-odd notes on my phone, dating back to 2010.
I wouldn’t have been able to do this with physical notebooks, which disappear on me like chapsticks. With notes and cloud syncing however, I have consistently carried around the same infinity-page notebook for over a decade. But while Didion’s notes are chic snapshots of elegant strangers in hotel settings and mannerisms of the epistolary elite, mine read like clues in a crappy Memento remake. “Hysterical dog pregnancy”, “plastic bag boy = Shannon”, “the décor made me feel positively about the economy”. Who wrote these? Why? Who is Shannon? In the endless capacity of digital note-taking, nothing is too small or insane to jot down.
There has also been the unpredicted celebrity co-opting of the notes app for public apologies. From Justin Timberlake to Justin Bieber, the familiar yet neutral interface helps, at least visually, to coo people into thinking that stars, they’re just like us – they make mistakes and they have their phones in dark mode too! Their sexual assault half-apology is in the same font as my airpoints number, it’s all just normal stuff!
Between the notes app as a public-facing platform for Serious Matters and the notes app as a private, pre-installed ashtray for one’s thoughts, authenticity and quality can be hard to find. Which posits Didion’s theory: is there still room for romance or remembrance in a digital notebook?
Much like the protagonist of aforementioned Memento, I spend a level four afternoon trying to make sense of what I once just had to note down. Instantly noticeable are the many “creative” notes (emphasis here on the air quotes around “creative”). Like Lorde, who in her newsletter described the notes app as a “sort of mythical zone for the modern songwriter”, notes has been a go-to for when I, too, am overcome by a mythical bout of unstoppable inspiration. Instead of popular music, I have produced ever-worsening attempts at poetry and “ideas” suitable for r/im14andthisisdeep.
Mixed in with these “creative” notes are functional ones – account numbers, URLs, addresses, measurements. The line between functional and creative can be blurry. Drafts of Serious Work Messages brush up inappropriately against sad little 3am confessions to myself. What seems to be the start of a break up text is interrupted by information for a flat viewing. A list of things I’ve read on T-shirts is the best “poem” I have written.
The rest is detritus. Copy and pasted bits, notes that don’t even make enough sense to be fake deep. Why, for example, did I write the word “fortitude” and nothing else on the 23rd of February, 2017? What was I referring to in November 2015 when I wrote that “this is like when you give half a medallion to twins who get separated at birth but not really”? Sure, each and every piece of text is timestamped to the minute, but these numbers are as meaningless as “46802” or “608 35 391”, which are amongst the many strings of numbers I have also noted down. But without even a colour of ink to go off, no state of handwriting and only a soft human brain succumb to years of instant information and distraction, I can no longer see or understand the woman who wrote the mathematical untruth that “50%>80%”.
The interface of the app flattens all – time, authorship, place. Celebrities’ writing looks like my writing and something written eleven years ago looks exactly the same as something written today. My very first note is from 2010. Quite adorably, my high school timetable. It doesn’t appear in gel pen, or even in its original iOS 3(!) interface, but in the exact same visual manner as the appointment details for a Covid vaccine.
Things I’ve copied down from other people also appear in the same sans serif hand. Some notes make me think “that’s too good, I couldn’t have written that”, and I am correct. I am reading a series of quippy sentences by Lorrie Moore. Other brief misattributions include a list of descriptors by Michael Kors on Project Runway, about 30% of Franny & Zooey just retyped with lots of typos and a beloved poem called “hot amoeba ass” by a now semi-cancelled author.
The aesthetic homogeneity is perhaps why the notes screenshot rose as a medium for celebrity apologies. There isn’t the stiff body language and unnatural speech of a video apology, and it’s easier to believe there’s no PR team behind it – the distance between celebrity and fan the same as the distance between phone and face.
Ariana Grande was the first in 2015. She screenshotted an apology after saying “I hate America” while licking some doughnuts in a shop, which makes about as much sense as my own cryptic dribbles. Since then, other celebrities have followed in format, with varying degrees of success. In one of Taylor Swift’s, a careless crop left in a visible “search”, ruining the illusion that she had just freshly penned the note herself. In reality, a successful notes apology can take days to compose and “the shorter the statement, the longer it takes”, as legal and PR teams try to juggle liability and public image.
Someone who didn’t consult any being who can read, let alone his teams, was Ja Rule, who in 2017 penned probably the best (and by best I mean worst) notes apology. In response to his role in the cultural schadenfreude moment that was Fyre Festival, he wrote that it was “NOT A SCAM”…“I truly apologise as this IS NOT MY FAULT”. The caps, the absolute zero effort to appear sorry – beautiful.
For most of us though, the notes app is for one’s eyes only, and that is perhaps where the romance remains. I have never read any friend or family member’s notes, nor do I ever wish to. In a sea of apps that algorithmically coax you to like/share/subscribe, notes remains blissfully uncurated. We can still appear mysterious to ourselves. “Your notebook will never help me, nor mine you,” writes Didion. No one else other than me would be helped by my fortune as divined by a bird (unless you had hoped I would invest in your company which due to my lack of “financial windfall energy” it is best for the both of us that I do not), or the note I made in 2015 about Van Gogh’s supposed nephew accepting my friend request on Facebook (which helps me only in that I am thankful I no longer spend my time adding supposed nephews on Facebook).
“Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point”, is what Didion gets at. I guess that is why I am still carrying around addresses to hostels in Gili and my Year 12 timetable. The doughnut apology has since been removed from Ariana Grande’s official accounts, but is the note still in her phone? Does she ever come across it while looking for clues to her past self or a wifi password? Unorganised and unseen, the humble notes app has transcended its function as just notebook, digital or otherwise. The ever-growing textual chowder of our thoughts, URLs and copy-pastes offers an entirely different identity to the ones we share. My notes are 11 years old now. Will I be reading through 20, 30 years of San Francisco scratchings one day? Or will Apple have changed the font to Gill Sans? Or go completely wild with a serif? A vintage Times New Roman for iOS 50? The future is uncertain. I can only hope I will still have notes by my side, and with it: fortitude.