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A virtual mess: Are you a secret digital hoarder?

Hoarders are easy to spot in the physical world, but digital hoarders are almost invisible — even though the psychology is similar and produces problems.
Hoarders are easy to spot in the physical world, but digital hoarders are almost invisible — even though the psychology is similar and produces problems.

If you could see the hidden electronic world of digital hoarders, this is what it would look like: room after room filled with photographs they hate. Thousands of MP3 songs they never will listen to are piled on the floor. Emails are stacked to the ceiling. Old videos and movies cover the floors. There is a rotting virtual smell in the digital air.

In reality, you can't see a digital hoarder's stash. Their real physical world may even be neat as an empty recycling bin. In the not-so-distant past, a virtual hoarder would be surrounded by boxes of floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, hard drives or even a drawer-full of thumb drives. The cost would also be obvious.

Now, in addition to physical electronic storage, there are online free file storage possibilities such as DropBox or Amazon Cloud. The digital hoarder can squirrel away files across the Internet, or pay monthly fees to expand storage. The result can add to the creeping electronic monthly charges. If the data is saved in too many "free" online services, that valuable file could be lost like a paycheck under a pile of clothes.

Melinda Beck writes in the Wall Street Journal about a digital hoarder named Mark Carter: "He estimates he has 24,000 MP3 files, 4,000 digital books, 2,000 CDs, 3,000 family photos saved on DVDs and at least 1,300 saved emails, including some from 20 years ago."

Beck says the definition of hoarding is "accumulating items beyond the point of usefulness, and it typically applies to things like clothing or cats."

Beck continues, "Nobody knows how many Americans have digital-hoarding issues … but the proliferation of devices, the explosion of information and the abundance of cheap storage have made it all too tempting for some people to amass emails, text messages, Word documents, Web pages, digital photos, computer games, music files, movies, home videos and entire TV seasons than they can ever use or keep track of."

Christophe Mallet on Social Media Today quotes Kit Anderson, past president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization: "Digital clutter doesn't beget mice or interfere with walking around the house, but it's more insidious because no one else is going to insist that you get help."

"I save everything because I'm afraid if I delete it, I'll need it someday," Barbara Vey says on her Publishers Weekly blog. "I know this isn't rational."

Frank Kerner on thinks his readers are hoarders: "I know you're denying it right now, but let's think about it. How much music is on your iPod or MP3 player? Probably a lot, right? Do you have it organized into playlists? Do you even have them organized by album? If not, you just might be a digital hoarder."

Kerner's article features a cartoon/photo where someone asks, "Honey, can I delete old episodes of 'Hoarders' off the DVR?"

"No!" Honey responds. "I'm saving them."

A post by Stacey Glick at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management's website shows how the hoarding gets in the way: "Just last night, I was trying to share pictures from our vacation in Maine and was so frustrated that we have over 11,000 pictures on our new computer and no way to easily organize them. At last glance, I had over 50,000 emails in my in-box!"

Daniel W. Rasmus writes at Fast Company about how new free file storage services on the Internet cloud is making the hoarding worse: "What are we hoarding now? Online storage. Have you collected Microsoft SkyDrive, Google Drive, Box and Amazon cloud storage like flash drives to some virtual key ring? Do you have images scattered across Apple's Photostream, Google+ and Picassa, Flickr and Facebook?

"If your answer is yes, then you have Distributed Data Disorder (DDD). This is no imaginary aliment. I spent nearly five hours over the weekend rationalizing the gigabytes of data that I had stored in SkyDrive and Dropbox. Duplicates, in some cases — folders with the same intent but with different names, each containing bits of my writing, my business, my personal life."

David Cate at asks, "Is Dropbox the new commercial storage unit?"

Rasmus at Fast Company says Distributed Data Disorder includes social media with relationships scattered across multiple electronic outlets from Facebook to Twitter.

Simon Hill at Digital Trends encourages a change: "We need to throw off the shackles of digital hoarding before it weighs us down. Hard drives are cheap and they are capable of storing tons of useless files. Almost everyone can afford the digital equivalent of a many-roomed mansion. … The ease with which we can store digital files encourages us to stick them in a folder and forget about them rather than ask whether we need to keep them at all."

Hill refers to an interview on Big Think with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, director of the Information Policy Research Center, National University of Singapore. Mayer-Schönberger says: "You know, the bottom line is that for all of human history, we forgot most of what we experienced and we remembered only those things that we thought were really important. Sometimes we were right and we remembered the right things. Sometimes we were wrong and we remembered idiotic things. The importance is that the remembering was the exception and forgetting was the default, was the rule. And today, this has become reversed. Remembering today is the default and all of our digital tools and artifacts we use and forgetting, deleting, is costly and time consuming."


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