Spring cleaning. A daunting but necessary annual task for most people. But as you dust your ceiling fan, clean out your freezer, and purge your closet, have you considered doing some cleaning up for the digital possessions you’ve accumulated over the years? I’m talking about the pictures you took of all the tantalizing desserts you’ve had, email threads with friends when you were making weekend plans, and random music and shows you downloaded because they were free?
Unlike tangible objects, digital material does not take up physical space and is conveniently out of our sight most of the time. We don’t trip over it like we do over Junior’s growing toy collection. It doesn’t teeter precariously on the edge of the cabinet like our woefully underused kitchen gadgets that tumble out gleefully every time someone opens the door. No, our digital material knows its place and stays invisible even though it is accessible to us practically all the time. And we don’t seem to ever run out of storage space for it.
Consequently, most of us are not very selective when deciding what to keep and what to toss. A new email that helpfully announces the latest Pinterest picks gets assigned to the “Read Later” folder; a market analysis report you stumble upon gets bookmarked so you can come back to it over the weekend; a recipe featured in an online magazine gets saved to your computer so you can use it at next month’s dinner party.
“Hoarders not only overestimate how useful an item is, but also exaggerate the consequences of not having it in the event they need it.”
Besides storage considerations, the effort through which we acquire stuff also makes a difference in how much we end up keeping. We come to possess physical objects mostly by walking into a store, browsing items, comparing prices, evaluating the object’s worth. A similar evaluation process happens when you shop online even though the physical effort is taken out of the chore. Digital information, on the other hand, comes to us almost effortlessly. Every time we log on, we are bombarded with hundreds of new social media posts, email messages and news feeds. Our brain, the ever-so-efficient working machine, quickly assigns simple labels as our eyes scan through the information: keep, delete, save for later, junk – no wait, this might be useful later, save it. With the costs of storing digital information being so low, we tend to err on the safe side by keeping more than we think we eventually need.
In the process, not only do we overestimate how useful the information is, but we also exaggerate the consequences of not having this information in the (highly unlikely) event we need it. This is the same mental experience of hoarders who accumulate physical objects.
You could be right in arguing that digital hoarding does not debilitate lives the way physical hoarding often does. But I am certainly curious about the long term effects of digital hoarding on our psychological processes. I wonder if, even on a small level, we are depriving our brains of a workout every time it takes a short cut from weighing the costs and benefits of keeping an item. I wonder if, constantly pressured to make quick decisions to keep up with the increasing demands of digital media for our attention, we would eventually lose a sense of what really matters to us and what makes us unique individuals.
I don’t have the answers, but I certainly hope that some research is being done. If you come across any studies on this, don’t just bookmark them, but send them my way.
In the meantime, you might want to clean up and organize your digital files, text messages, and other virtual possessions. Let’s not forget the things you’ve posted on your Facebook wall. Not that deleting them would forever remove their digital footprint, but your friends may be thankful later when they don’t have to sift through tons of useless detail to get to the pictures you posted of your awe-inspiring experience restoring a rainforest in Costa Rica.