“I gave him the wedding album,” my mom tells me anxiously over the phone, like a child who’s about to get a scolding.

“You did what?” I stew in silence for several exasperating minutes as my mom explains.

At the end, she sighs with frustration. “Are you mad at me.” It’s not a question, but rather a demand for an explanation.

So I explain. I explain to her that I can’t ask my soon-to-be ex-husband (from here on out, the Emperor) for the wedding album back, not now. I explain that such a request would come with a million questions I can’t answer, starting with “Why do you want the album, anyway?” I explain that giving the Emperor any hope that we will get back together will lead him on and unravel all the progress we’ve made toward a divorce.“

Why do you want it?” she asks.

I pause.

The truth is, I don’t want the album, even though it is one of those fancy ones, with the soft leather binding and the thick pages that are digitally collaged together. I had to have it at the time, despite the $3000 price tag and the fact that it didn’t arrive until a year and a half after our wedding day.

Since then, though, I’ve thumbed through it less than five times. On the few occasions that we’ve had friends over, most of our party guests squirmed as we flipped past the second half of the pages. The book has no monetary value that I can think of; in fact, it had no monetary value even when we were happily married.

Yet I still feel an urge to save it, however damaged the memories; the same way I have the urge to eat a bruised banana that only offers mushy, brown filling once you peel it. The album, after all, might have a home in the 5×2 plastic container that I’ve carted around to my last five apartments–the one that also holds a barbie doll, my high school graduation gown, and my college sorority paddle.

I ignore my mom’s question.

Everett Bogue, an extreme minimalist, seems to be much better at purging that I am. He goes so far as to untether himself not just from his possessions, but also from his digital data and memories. In December 2010, he deleted all his digital files–pictures, writings from high school, his popular blog, and more–in favor of what he calls “living data”–content that exists for as long as it’s needed, that grows over time, and that becomes more intelligent as time goes on. In an interview, he says:

“If change is accelerating, sentimentality and nostalgia for old times can be incredibly confusing to our psyche. I’ve begun to have days that felt like years, and hours that felt like days. Everything I used to be seems so long ago now. I feel like if I had things from high school or something it would yank me backwards in the space-time continuum and that would be painful. Let’s live here, right now.”

He goes on to describe how much faster he moves–and more importantly, how much more brilliant his creations are–without the memories of his former self weighing him down.

I wonder if he has a point.

Gmail was the first to parade the consumerist-driven idea that we don’t need to part with our data using the tagline, “Never delete an email again.” Evernote urges us to “Remember everything” and Dropbox wants us to “bring files anywhere.” In an age where Google, Apple, and Amazon are playing “cloud wars”–hoping you’ll entrust all your digital media to them for a small fee per year–storage is cheap. And, like the childhood toy wasteland of your parents’ attic, old things have a way of parking themselves permanently when there’s room, even in our digital lives.

On the flip side, companies like Netflix, Hulu, and more would prefer us to stop owning things altogether. “Media should be streamed!” they cry. We’re supposed to pay for access, not the files themselves. Wikipedia only shows us the most recent edit, not the revision history. And Instagram provides no easy way to download your photos, just easy ways to share them.

Maybe the internet, in all its glory and vast pages of unorganized links, articles, and tweets, is holding us back. Maybe the new layer of creations and innovators, the pinky promise of all this heightened social connectivity, is simply the sugar-free lemonade version of what it could have been without so much input. Maybe a blog was never meant to be a record or a history of how we’ve grown, but rather an ephemeral extension of who we are at any given point in time.

Maybe just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

When I got off the phone with my mother, I made a list of all the ways I (and you) could stop being a digital hoarder. There are two parts:

  1. Deleting stuff you don’t need
  2. Reorganizing the remaining stuff into appropriate folders so you can find them easily in the future

On Your Computer

  • Get rid of any apps you don’t use. This includes (especially) trial versions of anything you haven’t paid for (I am terrible at this).
  • Open up a paid Dropbox account. Transfer all the files from all your computers and other devices (phone, tablet, netbook, etc.) to the account. The reason you want everything on Dropbox is to create a “hoarding tax”–you want to pay actual cash for all the extra digital storage you are using. Once you’ve opened the account, delete all pictures, music, documents, and downloads from your hard drive.

In the Cloud

  • Before syncing back up with your laptop, organize your Dropbox account and delete all old files possible. Without even looking, two folders of mine come to mind – the one called “CRAP” where I used to drag files that I had saved on my Desktop whenever I wanted to clear it off, and the one called “Resumes” which has every resume and cover letter I have ever used to apply for a job since college (I graduated 5 years ago).
  • Delete music, photos, books, PDFs, that you do not want to read, look at, or listen to again. The picture of you and your mom that didn’t turn out due to a finger in the lens, for example.
  • Move any files that you do not need syncing or editing access for (music, photos, books, etc.) to a service like Amazon Cloud Drive to save money on storage costs.
  • Try to get back to the free version of Dropbox. I currently have 50GB, for which I pay $10 a month. I currently use over 50% of my storage. I currently access maybe 10 documents from Dropbox on a regular basis.

On Your Phone and/or iPad

  • Transfer files, books, and music to Dropbox.
  • Delete old apps that you don’t use anymore.
  • Delete old texts, call history, and voicemails.
  • Delete old contact numbers of people you never talk to anymore.
  • Reevaluate your phone bill. Do you actually need that 3G plan on your iPad? That unlimited texting plan for your phone?

On Your Television

  • Delete shows from your DVR list. I’ve seen almost every House episode rerun, and all seven seasons of The Office. I never did watch Southland (wishful thinking).
  • Reevaluate your cable package, Netflix subscription, Hulu subscription, and whatever else you have. Do you actually watch these things? Mindless television is undoubtedly the biggest unnecessary time-waster that has held me back from creating art in the past. (Read about my experiment ditching television for seven months >>)

On Your Social Media Accounts (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc.)

  • Choose three to five that you wish to actively maintain. Let the other profiles scattered about the web flail with disrepair, or better yet, delete them. It’s likely that a chunk of your friends on Facebook are your friends on Twitter are your friends on LinkedIn. You don’t need to be connected everywhere.
  • Get rid of contacts you don’t recognize, don’t care about, or don’t talk to. I have a new rule on Twitter that I don’t follow more than 200 people. I would love to get this down to 100 in the next six months.
  • Get rid of groups that don’t matter to you anymore. The same way trying to please everyone actually pleases no one, “liking” everything on Facebook actually means you love nothing. “Like” the things you love instead.
  • Update your profile. If you are like me, you haven’t done this in months, maybe years. Remove those quotes from back in college, rewrite those job achievements.

On Your Blog

  • Redo your entire website with a minimalistic design. Start over from a blank slate. Get down to the bare essentials with a few color choices. Only add back the items that were necessary.
  • Delete extraneous plugins, add-ons, and more
  • Take down older blog posts that:
    • don’t reflect your current opinion
    • don’t stay on your blog topic
    • don’t add value to your site
    • don’t seem more than half-baked
  • If you are a believer in maintaining links over sending people to a 404 page (I am), simply replace those posts you took down with a short message about why you’ve taken it down, and/or where someone can find more information.
  • Move all your unfinished drafts to an idea file on Google Docs or Evernote. Both are 100% free. Go through the idea file and pare down to stuff that you can actually use in a future blog post.

(It’s a short list, and I’m sure I’ve left things off. I encourage you to fill in the gaps and repost, if that’s your thing.)

I think of how the Emperor would answer the question about our wedding album. I’m assuming the only reason anyone would want a photo album is to hold on to the memories in some way. Maybe he’s still holding on to the fun times we had, that don’t do us any good now. Maybe it’s the kisses and “I love you’s” that have been rendered extinct through a thousand paper cuts. Maybe he’s still holding out hope that we could work it all out, turn a bad fit into a good fit.

I’m not holding on anymore.

As I part with the album, though, I can’t quite break my sentimentality. I find myself slightly relieved that the memory of our wedding day, now perfunctory at best, will at least live on in someone else’s living room. I’m just glad it’s not going to be mine.

5 thoughts on “Digital hoarding, emotional clutter, and the consequences of not moving on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *