Last November in suburban Texas, two high school BFFs, away at separate colleges, texted about boy troubles.
He doesn't Snapchat back he barely returns my text. His #wcw Wednesday was someone from his prom. All of his top 3 in Snapchat are other girls. I just wanted to hangout last night and he said he was tired and I noticed that he posted something on Facebook around midnight.
This is the current state of dating for 21-year-olds in 2014.
I was able to see this exchange because Taylor Prewitt, the 21-year-old recipient of the text, had allowed me to access her phone's iCloud. I used a program called TeenSafe, which is meant for parents to monitor their children's phones and internet activity. I could see all of her text messages from the last few months, all of her deleted texts, her browser history, bookmarks, contact list, her call logs, and her GPS location. Yes, it was all a little creepy.
But that was kind of the point. After several of my BuzzFeed News colleagues refused to let me track them, I tweeted a request for someone, anyone to let me track them. I got two replies, one from Taylor, and one from a guy who retracted as soon as I explained how much I would actually see. ("My girlfriend would kill me").
Snooping on a stranger's phone seemed, frankly, thrilling. What fascinating secrets might I learn? For years now, phones have been near-complete gateways into our personal and professional lives. What story could I piece together about their life based just on a text message trail? Would I actually be able to "know" a person just from their phone?
Here's TeenSafe's dashboard for Taylor's phone:
After initially downloading about six months worth of texts and web history, I started poking through. I'd read through months of her conversations with one person, then move onto the next, which made for a sort of Rashomon effect of piecing together what Taylor's life is like.
But despite the piecemeal way I navigated her most intimate correspondence and data trail, there was no real detective work necessary, here. Taylor's iCloud formed a clear and comprehensive portrait of Taylor's life. While maybe not surprising, it was another reminder to me just how much information is sitting in the cloud under varying levels of security. Recent celebrity hacks have exposed a lot of personal photos to the general public, but the reality is there's far more intimate data resting in the cloud, namely a near-complete snapshot of one's life.
After about two weeks of intermittent surveillance, I asked Taylor to respond to the major things I learned about her from her texts.
Katie: It seems like you have a really sweet new-ish boyfriend. Here's an ctual text conversation I saw:
"Hey baby I love you!"
"I love you too!!! So glad I got to see you last night"
"Me too baby, so glad I get to be a part of your life"
"Glad I get to be a part of your life"????? Was this guy made in a laboratory or something by scientists cooking up the perfect boyfriend? That is literally insane. IT'S DISGUSTINGLY CUTE.
Taylor: It's true. We met last week.* He's disgustingly cute and probably cooked up in a laboratory. (And he's hot.) I'm lucky.
Katie: I feel like you're a good friend, but too nice. Your friend who was worried about her suitor's Snapchat Top 3 seems to be slightly more of a mess that you are. I got the sense that you listen and offer advice, but you never take the hard line with your friends that you should. When your friend is mad at this Snapchat guy and thinks it's over, you agree and tells her she's so much better than the guy. But when they're back together, you're supportive of the relationship.
Not to overstep my bounds here, but pick a side! Show some spine! That guy was a real dick! He sucks, and your friend is better off knowing the truth.
Taylor: Most, if not all, of my friends are single, which is appropriate for the twentysomething crowd, and as members of the twentysomething crowd, are prone to some assholes. Probably, since the friend in question is comparing Snapchat hierarchy to assess the health of her relationship, she shouldn't need someone to tell her where it's going. But yes, I am spineless and the friend thing to do would be to tell her to snap out of it.
Katie: Several of your friends' contact names have Greek letters after them. My expert deduction: You're in a sorority.
Taylor: Guilty! I got really into learning the Greek alphabet when I joined Alpha Xi Delta. This is a very college freshman thing to do and I should probably change that as I am an adult.
Katie: Overall, I have to say you've got your life together impressively well for a 21-year-old, but you're still prone to moments of irresponsibility. My favorite text exchange is with your father over a speeding ticket you received. He was very concerned that you made sure to complete all the paperwork needed to clear up the ticket and get copies of your driving record so that it wouldn't affect your insurance.
You put off filing the paperwork though, and when your father checked up on it several weeks after the ticket, he went apoplectic in a way that charmingly reminded me of my own father — someone who is a real stickler for playing by the rules and being efficient about paperwork.
Based on another comment your dad says about being at a jail for the day made me suspect he's a lawyer, which explains the love of paperwork so much.
Taylor: My dad really does love paperwork. And he is a lawyer. Also, dad, I took care of it!
Katie: And then there's this one particular search in your web history. It's perfect. The most perfect 21-year-old web search I've ever seen. Let's talk about this:
Taylor: One of my roommates bought Franzia (for a boat trip; we're not heathens who drink that shit regularly) at the beginning of the summer and left it in the fridge for months and ended up moving out in early August. Obviously, I did not let it go to waste. The good people who contribute to Yahoo answers (heaven sent) say that Franzia is only good four to six weeks after purchase, but I say nay. I drank that super sour wine probably 10 weeks after purchase and am alive to tell about it.
Katie: I was a little surprised when I saw in your web history that you were searching for sex shops in your area — scandalous! (Not really.) Then I read in your texts with your boyfriend that you were writing a story about one of the stores for your work. Is this right?
Taylor: My boyfriend and I actually decided to visit a sex shop independently of any story. We just thought it would be a cool, fun experience together. I ended up writing about it, not for my job, but for a blog, because it was actually really uncomfortable to bring a guy into that setting. I don't know if the other women in the shop were embarrassed or what but they did not seem cool with a man being in the midst. It was also interesting to see how clueless my boyfriend was about the various array of options available to women sans man.
So let's see? Things I was able to figure out:
• Her dad's a lawyer.
• She knows how to have a good time with her friends and was in a sorority.
• She's definitely a 21-year-old American girl.
• She's got a new boyfriend and it's going well.
• She's sweet, but a pushover.
• She's open-minded with her boyfriend.
• She has a little brother in college who asks her to buy him beer occasionally (naughty!).
To be honest, I didn't know why Taylor agreed to this — but soon came to realize that it was probably because Taylor, unlike the vast majority of the human population, didn't have much to hide. Basically, what I learned about Taylor by spying on her for six months is that she's that rarest of digital creatures; a good person, level-headed, and kind to her friends and family. She seemed like a very normal recent college graduate.
Either that, or she's got a lot of burner phones.