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On Digital Clutter & Hoarding

I once told a friend that I would love to just own 50 items. Because, of course, my self-worth is tied up in the number of things I possess. I kid, but it’s true that I don’t have a lot of things.

What I do have, though, is digital clutter.

Oh, so many photos and videos and documents accumulated over the last 13 years as a Mac user. These are files that are dutifully backed up both over the cloud (Dropbox, for now) and on a hard drive (although it tells me it has been 183 days since I’ve last hooked that up 🚨); these are configurations that have been Migration Assisted through the machines that have gone through the years with me.

I run a tighter ship on my email: There’s one email in my inbox, and that’s for a gift card that I haven’t yet used. Except, click on ‘All Mail’ and you’ll see that’s one email out of 18,391.

Switch to the Photos app, and you can see where things get a little out of control, with multiple shots of the same things.

Am I a digital hoarder? I wondered aloud, looking at screenshots from the year 2009, still neatly sitting in a folder.


Hoarding, of course, is a behavioral pattern that manifests in the unwillingness to discard objects, and the ensuing distress if someone is made to do so. It needs no introduction; we’ve all seen clips of Hoarders and Marie Kondo trying her best to help the people featured on her show.

My older sister is ruthless in throwing things away, while I have the tendency to be too sentimental. My mom, on the other hand, keeps CDs and books and magazines from the ’90s and ’00s, and my father, keeps annual reports from decades ago, “just in case”.

Yet, judging from our shared Google Photos folder of my nephews, my sister has plenty of photos and videos of the two little munchkins. In a complete turn of events, I have helped my mom deleted every single text she has ever received on her phone. My dad also has terrible luck with devices, and has had to completely reinstall iOS at least twice, without backups.

So, it would seem that they are both fine with not having backups of their digital assets, or even having any at all.

Honestly? Much to think about and reflect on why I think I would have a mini anxiety attack if the content on my phone and all my backups were lost.


i. Pictures & videos

In 2017, I fell in the river kayaking, taking my iPhone 6 down with me. For 9 months, I used a loaned Android, with a camera that was bad, even by 2017 standards. Case in point: Here is a photo of me, taken on that phone, post-kayaking. (I know, I know.)

With the quality of photos and videos, paired with an abundance of storage space on your device, it can be easy to forget about just how many photos we’ve accumulated over the years.

By the time I had deleted pictures that were no longer relevant – this included screenshots, random shots of dogs being walked on the street, and merchandise with pandas on them — I had 8 pictures left. To compare, I ended 2016 with 75 pictures.

Does that mean I had a less exciting year in 2017 than 2016? I had chicken pox in 2016 and I fell into a river in 2017, so I think you can say that they were both on par.

Still, the top reason I can even put time stamps on the two incidents is because of the photos I had taken, perfectly archived in a handy app on the phone. But photos aren’t memories, as much as they are a great way to create a digital time capsule; I’m trying to be mindful of that these days.


ii. Emails

I remember when Gmail launched, with so many people thinking it was an April Fool’s joke because of the 1 GB mailbox limit. Back in the day (I’m old enough to use that as a phrase, apparently), my trusted Hotmail limit was a whooping 2 MB limit. A quick check on Google (irony!) also leads me to this article, where Yahoo! boasted a 100 MB inbox.

I’ve been using Unroll.Me since 2017; the service quietly and (mostly) efficiently filtering out all the sales pitches and newsletters and general emailers into a folder where I don’t get notified of their regal presence. Since starting on the journey to digital minimalism, I’ve been trying to mass delete emails (thank you, Gmail’s filtering mechanism) and unsubscribe from as many things as I can.

This is definitely a work in progress, though! I’ve managed to cut the 18k+ emails to nearly 4,300 emails right now. These emails take up 1.29 GB, according to Google, and I would like to see that go down more.

It’s not bad, though, considering that’s more than 10 years’ worth of emails!


iii. Cloud storage

To be perfectly honest, this is the reason why I even started thinking about digital minimalism in the first place. I have a Dropbox Plus (2 TB) subscription that is running out early next month. I first subscribed to that in 2015, when it was known as Dropbox Pro with a 1 TB limit.

At that time, it felt reasonable to shell out around $135 (US$99) for that space — I have plenty of source files since I’d started freelancing in 2008, and over the decade this repository has grown to a pretty enormous size.

Fast forward to now, with my smooth transition from a pure visual/brand designer to an experience designer — I no longer deal with Photoshop files upwards of 500 MB each, when everything I work on is either lightweight enough, or already in the cloud.

I have a folder called Portfolio, which — and you might be surprised to hear — contained branch folders labeled by the years I’ve explored job opportunities. It goes:

  • 2010 (3.3 GB)
  • 2011 (2.4 GB)
  • 2012 (3.22 GB)
  • 2014 (147.1 MB)
  • 2016 (97.3 MB)
  • 2018 (665.4 MB)

I really wish my 2018 folder could’ve followed the narrative, but alas, it contains super high-res images and photos. So that skewed my hypothesis a little, but my point remains about the type of files I handle.

The rest of the files in Dropbox utilizing that initial 1 TB storage were backups of photos and videos thanks to the nifty Camera Uploads folder that automatically does that for you, media (books, movies, TV shows… things I probably shouldn’t be admitting to that here 👀), and additional backups from previous work places.

I’ve since cleared most of it, in anticipation of switching over to Google One. Originally I’d thought that a purchase of the 100 GB plan (~$28, or ~US$20) was necessary, with after deleting more than 60,000 files, I’m clocking in at around 14 GB in total. I have a 19 GB limit in my Google Drive, so we shall see. Maybe I’ll continue to pare down and hold out on purchasing a bigger storage space.

As Parkinson’s Law states, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Maybe it works tangentially for clutter as well — “stuff increases so as to fill the space available for its storage.”


iv. Bookmarks

I gave up on this and shoved everything into a “Pre-2020” folder.

1 thought on “On Digital Clutter & Hoarding”

  1. Pingback: On Photo storage & Google's take-backsies – Jalyn Cai

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