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Digital Hoarding (or the Fight for Digital Minimalism)

I can't pinpoint the exact time that I realized minimalism was the way I wanted to live my life, but I have written about it in the past and consider myself a burgeoning minimalist. (In this case, burgeoning means I have kids and minimalism is a personal choice that cannot be force on others.) The keys for me are the ideas of intentionality, simplicity, and mind share; the less I think about things, the more I can focus on the important stuff, be it family, hobbies, or otherwise. By extension, I believe that every decision is indicative of someone's priorities and minimalism allows for a smaller list of priorities to juggle. Ergo, this mindset seems to come with the potential to reduce stress and produce a higher respect for the items one chooses to prioritize. However, I recently realized that while I had produced results in changing my physical world to match these values, I had little regard to the digital assets in my life.

First, some philosophical discussion. I venture to guess that my minimalism hinges on a slightly different ideal than other people's, so I thought I would share my approach. Though this philosophy doesn't directly translate to the digital minimalism that is the focus of this post, I think it important to cover the "why" of my minimalistic tendencies.

I believe that things are made to be shared. I share my words as readily as I would share my things with other people if they need them. My ideal for minimalism is that everything in my life has active use and purpose; if a thing does not have an active place in my life, I would like it to have an active place in someone else's if possible, instead of going to a landfill. For instance, I love to cook, but I am not going to keep tools in my kitchen that see no use when other people can and want to use them.

As likely every human does, I also tend to dislike things that add resistance to a process. This manifests itself in my minimalism in that regardless of the value of the thing I am purging, I am prone to donate versus sell. Hence my use of the word, "share", when starting this discussion.

With that brief philosophical overview in mind, I would consider the expansion of minimalism from the physical to the digital to be common, but I assume it is unsurprisingly controversial. Consider these items:

  • Online Accounts: When was the last time you unfriended someone or closed a social networking account entirely? Perhaps alternatively, is there an online account you don't use anymore? Have you closed accounts and kept the password information somewhere instead of disposing of it?
  • Files: When was the last time you looked through and trashed old emails? Old digital receipts? Old digital files? Old and unused apps?
  • Focus: Do you ever turn off notifications for apps? Or unsubscribe from email newsletters?
  • Reading: Do you know how many articles are in your read-it-later queue? Or when was the last time you went through old webpage bookmarks? Do you follow all the RSS feeds in your reader? Are you ever going to reread that digital book?
  • Photos: Do you need all twenty of those shots of the Eiffel Tower?

After working over the past month, I can answer almost all of these questions in the way that points to minimalism. As with the physical world, if something does not bring joy or satisfaction, why is it still taking up space or mindshare? I tried to break these items up into categories, but technically, they are all of a similar vein; they are all just bits and bytes. But just like houses, if you buy more space, you will inevitably fill it without regard for your actual needs.

There is a physical extension to these digital items as well that needs mentioning: devices. The more devices you have, the more storage you need to back them up; the more cables you need to charge them; the more apps you need to download; and the more workflows/processes you need to keep in mind to stay on top of the constant barrage of activities or notifications.

As with any discussion of minimalism, it has to be said that not everyone thinks about things or approaches in the same way. Some people don't care how many notifications come in, some people don't care if their photos library is massive, some people don't care if they fill their house, proverbial or not, with stuff. That's OK, to each their own, but I offer the above comments as a means to call attention to the lack of discussion on the subject of digital minimalism (or, more rightly stated, digital hoarding), especially as more and more discussion of physical minimalism is entertained. People may not see the effects visibly, but as we create more data the world over, the need to pare down the data we keep will become all the more necessary.

Statistics as Accountability

As part of the accountability that goes along with this type of post, I created a list of items I focused on culling in recent months. There are ways to pull some of this information dynamically to be even more transparent, but the amount of work it would take seemed unnecessary for the amount of my readership.

The following list is a work in progress. Some of these numbers change every day, some will never be lower than they are right now. It is the reality of living in a digital world. Where I can make changes, I am actively doing so. Over the last month, I have reduced the number of bookmarks, emails, email newsletters, online accounts, files, storage locations, RSS feeds, photos, and unread articles. In addition, I have reduced the number of personal devices. The other thing to keep in mind in a conversation of this nature is the fact that these are my items and do not include items created by my family.

  • >66K Photos
  • ~3TB Files (across 5 cloud storage providers and physical media)
  • ~66K Email Messages
  • >2K Unread Articles
  • >6K Digital Books
  • >500 Saved Passwords
  • \ Apps Owned
  • >20 Storage Devices
  • >80 RSS Feeds