Images by Adam J. Kurtz

The Invisible Weight of Digital Hoarding

The first step is admitting you have a problem

One night a few weeks ago, I almost threw my iPhone at the wall. It’s the smallest model, capacity-wise, and it had filled up long ago — and oh-so-quickly — with photos, MP3s, text messages and space-eating apps. But I was leaving on a trip in the morning, and I needed to clear out some space so I could download an audiobook for the plane. So I decided, finally, that I really didn’t need five gigabytes’ (and five years’!) worth of text messages. (Well, I didn’t need them on hand, anyway.) First, I backed up my phone, to make sure they were saved. Somewhere in that half hour, Apple informed me that I had used up my $0.99 per month’s worth of iCloud space; would I like to upgrade to the $4.99 per month subscription? Fine, I thought. As long as I don’t have to deal with this right now. Without hesitation, I clicked yes.

Once everything was backed up, it took me another half hour to delete 90 percent of my texts from my phone. (You can’t delete in bulk, I discovered.) When it was done, I immediately felt relieved. Finally! I thought. I might not be able to reminisce about things awful OkCupid dates texted me in 2011, but I can at least listen to Infinite Jest in airplane mode. (Just kidding! I would never buy an audiobook of Infinite Jest.)

But the available storage didn’t immediately register, so I turned my phone off and then on again — because that usually fixes things, right? When it was done rebooting, I went back to my Messages app.

Your data, at some point or another, has gotten in the way of your life — and, probably, your wallet.

Every one of the messages had suddenly, mysteriously returned. I spent another half hour deleting them again. Turn off, turn back on. There they were! Again. Apoplectic, I finally gave up, turned it off and went to bed, resigning myself to a six-hour morning of nothing but economy-cabin white noise.

I know I’m not alone. Your data, at some point or another, has gotten in the way of your life — and, probably, your wallet: Whether you’re struggling to find room for one more ebook on your tablet or daring to reorganize your music library only to discover that years of neglect have built a terrifying, untouched shrine to your chaotic 2004 Napster downloading habits. If you’ve had a computer in the past 15 years, you’ve likely also accumulated an overabundance of invisible stuff — digital stuff.

And getting rid of it is nearly impossible.

This has always been true of physical possessions, too. Hoarding has been a topic of cultural fascination for decades, long before it was officially categorized as a psychological phenomenon (not to mention a staple of reality TV). Once seen as a form of OCD, then classified as a separate but related issue in the late 1990s, the compulsion to save precious things is, one could argue, essentially as old as capitalism.

One thing about physical hoarding must be understood in order to comprehend its digital counterpart: It’s far more common — and often far less extreme — than mass entertainment would have audiences believe. TLC’s Hoarders: Buried Alive and A&E’s Hoarders shed a disturbing light on the sickness; the two shows feature houses filled to the ceiling with leftover food, collected papers and even deceased pets. Professional organizers specializing in hoarding (who seem to function as therapists as well as cleaners) help hoarders get rid of what they truly do not need.

Outside the TV screen, anywhere from six million to 15 million Americans hoard enough that it “causes them distress or interferes with their ability to live,” estimate Gail Steketee and Randy Frost in their book, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.“[Hoarders use] possessions to make connections between people and to the world at large,” they write. “[Their] sentiments are really not that different from what most of us feel about keepsakes or souvenirs — the abnormality lies not in the nature of the attachment but in their intensity and extremely broad scope.”

The main issue for hoarders is that so much of their stuff induces a sense of emotional attachment. But what if, like billing or record-keeping, one’s inability to part with “meaningful” possessions suddenly went paperless? Even if you had these attachments, would the emotional aspects of hoarding cease to be a problem if all your stuff was invisible?

What if one’s inability to part with “meaningful” possessions suddenly went paperless? Would the emotional aspects of hoarding cease to be a problem if all your stuff was invisible?

If the struggle to find space on my iPhone says anything about it, the answer is no — digital things are still things, and hanging onto them always comes with a cost. Still, the electronization of hoarding has radically changed the phenomenon’s parameters. Unlike physical hoarding, digital hoarding is still mostly unknown territory, at least from a clinical standpoint. When the concrete physical aspects of hoarding disappear, the psychology of the habit becomes far less definitive.

“Unfortunately, we know very little about hoarding associated with digital information,” Steketee told me via email. “Because it doesn’t involve physical clutter, it can’t be classified as hoarding disorder, so [it] falls outside our purview, unless the person also saves objects that generate clutter.”

Digital hoarding is especially slippery because these days everyone does it, even if just by accident: I can happily dump pounds of clothing and books, but ask me what would happen if suddenly half my hard drive were to vanish, and I’ll need a Xanax to recover.

In the digital age, even the tidiest neat freak can effortlessly amass an electronic cesspool of once-useful PDFs and briefly precious screenshots. Hiding them away is as easy as selecting all and dragging to a folder, and accessing any of them requires only a few keystrokes. If streaming takes away the need to physically save files to your computer, that means the libraries from which we curate our tastes become even more important to parse. Your “To Watch” list on Netflix, your playlists on Spotify, even the articles collected on your Instapaper — it’s all time-consuming, handmade curation. The collecting of the items, physical or not, remains just as important.

“Our relationship with things, both physical and digital, is confusing, and it quickly gets away from us,” says Deron Bos, a certified professional organizer based in Los Angeles who helps clients declutter and organize in both physical and digital spaces. “More often than not, it’s not given a lot of thought; the acquisition of things is easier to do than the letting go.”

Not only does most of the data you’re storing cost you nothing to collect, but the consequences are so abstract that they only come up when, say, you’re trying to take an audiobook on an airplane — it’s an inconvenience, not a debilitating psychological crisis.

Nevertheless, digital hoarding is a problem, one that’s bound to worsen as more and more of our lives become digitized. The question that remains is merely that of its consequences.

In the late ‘90s and early aughts, when digital media was in its infancy and consuming it required massive downloading, the line between physical and digital hoarding was a little more blurred. Services like Napster and Limewire suddenly made it possible — and necessary, since subscription services were spotty at best — to partake in what tech critic and Awl co-editor John Herrman calls “decadent collecting” of things like MP3s and videos.

“I had a roommate who downloaded every TV show he’d ever watched, all seasons, all episodes, just to have them,” recalls Herrman, whose own downloading habits were more music-oriented. “We were so proud of our unlimited collection.”

You might not be accessing that Garden State soundtrack anymore, but unless you’re unusually rigorous about keeping your digital files in order, it’s probably still there.

Collections like these more closely resembled traditional hoarding, if only because they required ample digital storage space, which meant the amassing of multiple external hard drives and the cluttering of the hoarder’s physical space. But the rewards for digital hoarding were immediate and great.

“File-sharing created these interesting incentives, where having a large collection made you sort of a god, especially on services where you could browse by user,” Herrman says. “Your hoarding helped the system work [and the system] rewarded you in whatever metrics it had.”

“Need a copy of the Garden State soundtrack?” a cute classmate asks. I got you. But the hierarchy of college students sharing their curated collections only mattered to a relatively small minority of early-adopting digital users at the time — and it’s since been effectively wiped out by services like Spotify, Pandora and Netflix. The type of digital hoarding that has survived is the one born of passive accumulation and neglect. You might not be accessing that Garden State soundtrack anymore, but unless you’re unusually rigorous about keeping your digital files in order, it’s probably still there.

These days, people who don’t suffer from a tendency to digitally hoard are the exception. We stockpile mass amounts of digital data — important screenshots, reaction GIFs, latent Limewire MP3s we never bothered to trash — simply because our digital lives aren’t beholden to the same small finite areas like our kitchens or bedrooms. We’ll take 15 versions of a selfie in order to get the optimal version, but then don’t bother to sift through and delete the duplicates — who cares? (Until the space fills up on your phone, of course.) We’ll save emails from 2005, perhaps thinking that they will one day be of use, or at least of sentimental value, because at such a minor cost that it seems like an easy way to at least feel scrupulous. But we also operate under the belief that not only will old emails one day be useful, they’ll also be accessible, ignoring the fact that now, more quickly each day, file types and software versions eventually become obsolete. Even if they don’t, data caches quickly become so massive and unwieldy so that it’s nearly impossible to parse.

While most American adults now possess basic technological literacy, few know how this technology actually functions — the difference between memory and storage, for example — let alone how to navigate more complicated troubleshooting tasks. Jokes about the iCloud and how we still really don’t “get it” have even become clichéd. 2014’s Sex Tape, starring Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, was about a couple who somehow lose a sex tape to “the cloud”; it ends up on the iPads they’ve given to friends and family. “It went up! It went up to the cloud!” Segel’s character screams in the film’s trailer. “You can’t get it down from the cloud?” Diaz asks. “Nobody understands the cloud,” Segel answers. “It’s a mystery!”

We operate under the belief that not only will old emails one day be useful, they’ll also be accessible, ignoring the fact that now, more quickly each day, file types and software versions eventually become obsolete.

Huge parts of the consumer tech industry bank on this lack of understanding (and lack of motivation to delete) — from hardware companies making increasingly larger hard drives to cloud companies that hike up monthly subscription rates. The latter have become an attractive option for consumers who hit their free limit and face the alternative of spending hours sifting through and individually deleting thousands of files. Companies like Google have even attempted to build tools that specifically bank on our inability to organize — Google Photos allows users to sift through their photos using search terms identifying specific items, like dogs or sunsets.

It’s not a perfect science, but this is the next step for the facial-recognition technology with which we’re already familiar, the one that suggests we tag our friends after Facebook magically recognizes their faces in newly uploaded photos. As we amass bigger and bigger collections, tech companies know they have to get better and better at helping us find a super hi-res needle in a super hi-res photo of a haystack. They want you to feel comfortable adding more and more information, secure in the knowledge that you can always go back and find the right files.

“Big data-centric companies tend to hoard for you, because storage is cheap and data is valuable,” says Herrman of cloud storage options like Google Photos or Dropbox. “But this really interferes with the idea of storage and hoarding! It happens without thinking about it [because] it’s done on your behalf.” Not to mention, he adds, “It feels safe and permanent, but it’s not. It also feels private, but potentially, it’s not.”

So what’s next? Will there ever be an efficient way to go back into our already-massive data dumps and divine the important stuff? And at what point must we let our once-meaningful data disappear into the void?

Of course, the problem of digital rot could be solved for us. As the internet evolves, there’s a good chance that our digital files will disappear with the companies that promised to store them for us. Remember when diary-blogging service Xanga shut down in 2013, taking your 3,000-word rants about college life and pubescent angst with it? Users were able to request copies of their accounts before they were lost forever, but how many could even remember their password, or even that they put all those words there in the first place? Similarly, in 2012, when popular photo upload site Kodak Gallery became Shutterfly, users were notified by emails that may well have bypassed their inboxes. “All customers should receive an email this month on how to link up your Kodak Gallery account with Shutterfly,” CBS Boston reported. However, if you missed the window to link your Kodak Gallery account with Shutterfly, your photos were gone.

But what if that doesn’t happen? What if our millions and millions of files survive and continue to multiply? Will all of that data hoarding ever be harmful enough to rate alongside its physical counterpart?

“I don’t know if I’ve seen that yet,” Bos says. “Other than a stack of physical hardware, which is fairly common — someone has four or five old MacBooks that they know have some data on that they should save, or they know they should wipe it, but they’re keeping it for some reason. But even then, it’s not so much hoarding you’d see on TV.”

Maybe it’s not all so bad. Herrman finds comfort in his hoard: “I don’t know what it looks like when it becomes a compulsion, but I think digital hoarding is kind of wonderful. If you take the space and physicality out of hoarding, what is it, really? Fear and anxiety manifest? Sentimentality? It’s nice to hoard for yourself. The hoarding done on your behalf tells a certain story. Yours might tell a different one.”

Devon Maloney is a culture journalist whose work has appeared in Wired, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The Cut, and Vice. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Oscar.

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