The Hazards of Digital Hoarding - Hoarding Week


By Molly Freeman

Photo courtesy of Jeff Kubina

I hadn’t heard of digital hoarding, also called e-hoarding, until recently, but I’m probably guilty of it. After a quick perusal of my hard drive, I found files full of pictures and mp3s that I haven’t opened since I got my current laptop in late 2011 and transferred everything onto it from my previous computer. Although I deleted many of those files, there are still other aspects of my digital life in which I’m an e-hoarder, specifically my Tumblr account.

First things first, what actually is digital hoarding? According to the Wall Street Journal’s article on digital hoarding it’s “accumulating items beyond the point of usefulness.” Everyone associates hoarding with what they’ve seen on A&E or other reality shows: stacks of yellowed books, broken furniture, and tiny paths through an obstacle course of junk. But what is the equivalent in the digital universe?

What’s Wrong with Digital Hoarding?

Since there is an endless amount of digital storage space, it’s near impossible to identify an e-hoarder, but that doesn’t necessarily mean digital hoarding isn’t a problem. David D. Nowell, a neuropsychologist told WSJ that the problem isn’t with storage space in your computer; it’s the mental space that these files take up. Having an excess of word documents, emails, photos, music, etc can cause anxiety within people.

The compulsions behind digital hoarding are similar to those linked with other kinds of hoarding. Katherine Trezise, president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, told WSJ “it comes down to fear and indecision.”

So how can you tell if you’re a digital hoarder or just a person with a lot of clutter? It’s certainly hard to tell since it’s so easy for anyone to accumulate an excess of digital data especially when it comes via a free download. I’m not necessarily talking about illegal downloading either; for a long time I had dozens of e-book previews on my iPhone just because they were free. There are plenty of legitimately free downloads out there that a person might never even use.

Furthermore, it seems as though anyone could qualify as a digital hoarder. I know many people who have external hard drives for the sole purpose of storing movies, music, and photos. There are certainly dozens of people who profess their digital hoarding tendencies online, just Google search “Confessions of a digital hoarder” for some examples.

I could write my own confessions in relation to my personal Tumblr, which is where I keep most of my social media clutter. I have had the same Tumblr blog for four years that has amounted to 8,856 posts, 397 drafts, and 14,369 liked posts. Although I see nothing wrong with any of this, it seems social media sites have a tendency to enable digital hoarding practices by giving people another outlet.

Before Pinterest I had an overflowing bookmarks dropdown menu, but Pinterest has changed all that. As a digital pin board, it’s a place for people to save DIY projects, wedding ideas, clothes, pictures of puppies, make up tutorials, recipes, etc that they might never use. Are people with dozens of boards and thousands of pins hoarders? Or are they social media savvy? Or are they Larry Fisher?

In 2011, NBC Miami reported on Fisher who had six computers worth of data that he refused to delete. NBC dubbed Fisher an “e-hoarder.” While this does seem excessive at face value, should we accept this digital diagnosis so easily?

Sites like Gawker or the Awl responded with derision. Adrian Chen at Gawker named e-hoarding the “made up computer disease du jour.” Alex Balk at the Awl ended his commentary with a call to e-action: “Are YOU an e-hoarder? E-Tell us in the e-comments! But don’t e-mail it to us, because we e-delete that stuff e-ASAP.”

The Nuisance of Tumblr URL Hoarding

On the social media blogging platform, any user who has an account can create as many usernames as they want, though they can only use one at a time for the primary account. This has resulted in people creating dozens of usernames relating to different books, movies, television shows, etc and hoarding them. Earlier this year The Daily Dot reported on a URL hoarder named Jess, who had accumulated over 200 URLs.

Psychologist Dr. John Grohol told The Daily Dot that one possible reason why teens hoard URLs is for status and power. “By hoarding Tumblr domains, teens and young adults are increasing their power in the marketplace,” Grohol said. “And indirectly, they probably believe it is also increasing their popularity among people they want to impress the most (Tumblr friends and fellow Tumblr hoarders).”

Tumblr hoarding can also come with a price—users’ blogs can be suspended if they are reported for amassing too many domain names. Beside that, though, there is very little incentive to stop or prevent digital hoarding, unless you are buying costly back up drives.

However, if you want to clean up your e-life a little bit, Ed Cabellon had some tips to help. According to Cabellon, there are four areas of your digital life that usually need some cleaning up: social media accounts, your inbox, your mobile devices, and finally your computer (including external hard drives.)

If you’re not into the idea of cleaning up your Facebook profile, though, the company’s newly released Graph Search is another way to sort through the clutter on the site. The tool makes the advanced search feature easier for users to find “Bars in New York City my friends like” or “photos of my friends before 2003.” The social media site has been testing Graph Search since earlier this year and it should become available to all users with the “US English” setting in the next few weeks.

While it might be a good idea to at least try to clean up your computer and social media accounts, most people are not guilty of the level of hoarding that is shown on A&E’s popular television series. That being said, maybe I’ll try to clean up my Tumblr account a bit.