My Digital Life, and how I learned to rein in the chaos

Back in the halcyon days of the pre digital age when communication was person to person, phone calls came via landlines, and prime time entertainment happened on cathode ray television sets, the internet as we know it was the stuff of science fiction.

But then computers were created and the internet was born.  By the time I got my first email account probably sometime around 1994, the internet had been around for a few decades and personal computers had already become a thing that families and teachers learned to struggle with on a regular basis. Internet access was initially delivered to our home by way of an arduous system of cables connected to a computer, connected to a dial up modem which provided the the stars and planets aligned, and nobody was expecting a phone call, would allow you to “dial up” and find out whether or not “you’ve got mail.

At the time the digital realm was not an essential part of my reality, or the reality of anyone I knew.  But over the years, particularly in the past decade, as email went from novelty to necessity for work, both in and out of an office, coupled with the burgeoning ubiquity of cellphones forced me to embrace the new technology and slide slowly down the digital rabbit hole.

My cellphone and I became besties, and email, like blogging, became a lifeline and maybe a little bit of a crutch.  Where I once only had a Discman, I moved onto a BlackBerry and an iPod.  Email conversations I started at work with family and friends about television shows, dinner plans and crazy-shit-my-boss-does were able to continue uninterrupted 24/7, or at least until I fell asleep or, like a fool, had to use both hands to carry groceries home.  Over time the emails, texts and photos continue to accumulate at an exponential rate and eventually my Blackberry crapped out, and I assumed it was from exhaustion.  So I migrated to an iPhone.  Between freelancing, temping, grad-school, blogging, Instagramming and my post grad life bad habits abound, and it all kind of snowballed and then came to a head at the start of 2015.

WTF?

My aggravation with the current state of my digital affairs began in the fall of 2014 during the clusterfuck we like to call “the holiday season,” also known as that period of time that starts with Halloween and stretches all the way through the New Year.  As my data reached critical mass, why I was keeping so much and whether or not I was a digital hoarder was a questions I had to ask.  There were really three big issues I was having.  The first, was the data usage on my iPhone.  Between all the photos, videos, music, apps, texts and emails that passed through my phone on a regular basis it was just swallowing up data faster than I could get it, and I really didn’t think buying more data was a better solution than trying to understand how it all got used up.  Then there was my email, which weighed in at at least 20,000 emails.  This seemed excessive, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why anyone would keep that much email, much less an email announcement for a sale that’s been over for nine years.  My third issue, and this was the smallest of the three but still kind of an concern, was that all the digital content I had accumulated, (so all of the images, copy, blog posts, videos).  Looking at my “catalog” it appeared as though I was planning on saving everything indefinitely which just doesn’t seem like a good way to operate and consequently was taking up a lot of space on my hard drive.  My final issue was why did I have so many social media accounts I wasn’t using?

The problem with my cartoonishly bloated email had been ongoing but it really started to piss me off with all the damn “Holiday Sale” announcements that started to arrive en masse right after Halloween.  The previously innocuous emails of weekly “Specials” and “100 point perks” ballooned into an tidal wave of biblical proportions.  By the time Black Friday rolled around I was in the habit of opening my email and automatically deleting the first 50 simply out of spite.  The next 100 was usually a combination of sale announcements, newsletters, updates and innumerable alerts from different media outlets, campaigns, social media accounts etc… I did skim through those, but they got tossed too.  The final 50 I usually sifted through and found the 10 or so important ones which I kept… forever, apparently.

 

The more I think about it, the more I realize the problem with technology really isn’t the fact that it exists, so much the way we learn to use it, or perhaps the way we don’t respect the growing influence it has over our daily lives.

Shortly after the New Year, probably sometime around the second week in February, when posting pictures of the post apocalyptic snow mountain that was slowly encasing my house was starting to make me crazy.  I started thinking about my digital life, and specifically my digital practices.  Not just emails, but everything.  Something about it irked me and then it hit me. “I might be a digital hoarder.”

Everyone saves stuff, usually important things, keepsakes, treasured memories.  But most people don’t need to save EVERYTHING.  As hard as I thought about it, I just couldn’t figure out why I had been saving all those emails.  I decided it was because I was either to lazy too press delete or felt I was too busy to take a moment to do some basic upkeep and maintenance.

Since I started working with digital media, I’ve spent a lot of time considering other people’s digital media and storage needs but never really my own.  Despite the fact that occasionally things get out of control, I’ve always been good about editing through and organizing my digital photographs, and that was kind of the end of it.  I never really considered the rest of my digital life because it didn’t immediately take up a physical place in my world the way my photography did.  But as I created more multimedia content and it took up more physical and digital space, my storage needs grew.  I added a cloud option and an external hard drive, and I began to get a much clear picture of what all this data generation and accumulation meant for me financially, emotionally and physically.  So, taking an objective step back and being really critical of my own practices and the way I defined digital media, and integrate it into my life was the first thing I had to do.

What is “Digital Media”? 

Even though we use the terms “digital media” “data” and “data storage” all the time now, I think they are still very abstract for a lot people.  We understand what someone means when they refer to a digital photograph or say “I downloaded a file,” but what does it mean exactly? More importantly, why should I want to have a better understanding of it?

“Digital media” is the term we use to classify all images, text, video, audio etc… media that is created with computers and technology and exists within the digital world.  This includes data and information shared and stored within social media, text files, video games, websites and so on… “Data” is a set of variables we use to quantify a subject. In this case the data we have is digital information.  If we are talking about a digital image, the data related to that image is called “Metadata” and it is the information about the image that this use of the word “data” refers to.  This also includes data like “Pixels” which is a term most of are familiar with and refers to “pixel elements” that give us the information about a specific point on a photographic image.

“Data Storage” is most often linked to computer storage, and is a way people refer to how much they can store on their hard drives.  Data storage is tricky because you might need a lot of storage, but how much you have can depend on how much you can afford.  The reason for this is because the more digital media (or the more digital data), you have which needs to be stored, the more space you need to store it and therefore the money you will have to spend on storage.  So the more storage you need the more it will cost you personally.  For example, the more data you use on your smart phone the more it will cost you.  This is why it’s important to understand what digital data is, and why when we we accumulate it, it can have both a physical cost and a psychological one as well.

If you are a professional and for work generate digital media you are by default going to have more digital data to deal with than the average person.  However, because we live in a society where generate a lot of data about ourselves either through fitness trackers, online purchases, social media, documents, downloads, emails, audiovisual files whatever… we are still generating a lot more than we probably realize.  That is what accumulates, and this is where my story begins.

My Plan

What you need to remember about anything created or saved in the digital realm is that just because you can’t see a pile of junk mail on your desk, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.  If anything this is one of the most difficult concepts for people to grasp and because of that one of the most difficult things to do is reign in people who have already generated a lot of photographs or have created an enormous quantity of digital files.  Reverse managing a large body of digital data is not impossible but it can just be tricky.  It requires insight into the nature of the data, insight into the person who created it, and a pretty solid idea of what will be done with the data once its been reorganized.  It can take a really long time to clean up someone else’s (or your own) data particularly if you’ve never done it before and it’s just continued to balloon over the years.  So, it is always better to either not amass more data than you need, or start organizing from the beginning.

I know that it is not always possible to start out being organized, and if you aren’t by nature an “organizer” or if you don’t think you generate a lot of data (I realize “a lot” is a relative term) then you probably don’t think it’s necessary.   Learning how to manage your own digital data is quickly becoming a necessary life skill, and if you are someone who has a lot digital data organizing it should probably be one of your priorities.  First things first, the first thing you have to do when you’re undertaking a project like organizing your digital data is figure out what your goal is for going through it.  My goal was simple.  I wanted to pare down my data usage and storage needs, and streamline my existing archive.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times data storage is very important.  There are free storage options which are fine, but good storage typically costs money.  That is because you have more space to store your data, and your data will probably be more secure.  If you need more storage space for your digital content, or if you need to up your smartphones data plan because you have a lot of photos, then you will likely have to pay additionally for more storage. For some people this a nominal additional fee and its no biggie. For me it was another charge I couldn’t afford to pay.  So I decided to do three things; go through my email, go through social media accounts and go through all my iPhone photos and see if I could lighten the load and find some room somewhere.

Photos

I am an avid photographer and Instagrammer.  To say I take a lot of photos would be an understatement of epic proportions.  So when I started wondering where a lot of my storage on my phone had disappeared to my photography bank was the first place I looked.  Sure enough, there it was, an enormous cache of 2000 images stored on my phone.  To be honest, a lot of them were Instagrammed.  So, first things first.  I decided to back all my iPhone photos to an external Hard Drive and then take everything except the last three months worth images off my phone.  I figured since I don’t spend hours scrolling through them on a daily basis anyways so why keep them on my phone “just in case”.  It took a little while but it worked, and once I purged the unwanted images I was storing on my phone, as if by magic a huge chunk of storage on my phone was freed up.

When it comes to images, in particular, because they tend to be of precious memories and trips, I typically don’t suggest just deleting everything.  It’s just not a good idea and I think operating under the assumption that a blanket purge is the easiest, and therefore the best way to get things done, is usually something most people regret.  If it took you time and effort to gather a collection of images why would you just delete them? Conversely, I can’t agree with anyone who suggests you should save everything.  That just doesn’t make sense. Why would anyone want to save 100 accidental photos of your thumb taken from the inside of your pocket? So, my advice isn’t don’t just press “DELETE ALL” and throw everything out, but learn to edit, or edit as you go.  In the end this will probably help make you a better photographer as well.

Social Media

Social media can be a lot of fun and it can create a lot of connections between people, but if not kept in check it can also be toxic.  It doesn’t take much to log onto Twitter or Youtube and loose a whole afternoon.  The problem I had with my social media accounts is that what makes them so exciting, is exactly the same thing that can make them so toxic. While it is definitely good to want to participate in the conversation and try new things, you really don’t need to keep accounts open if they aren’t active.  If you stop using an account, or it becomes un-fun then there’s no reason to keep it.

So, I started by making a spreadsheet of all the online accounts and social media accounts I could remember I had.  Any app I hadn’t used in a year or more I deactivated, and then removed it from my phone.  You cannot imagine how much space this freed up on top of which it immediately cut my list in half.  Then I went through the rest of my list and asked myself the following three questions about the remaining social media accounts  1) Why do I have this account? 2) What’s my plan for this account? 3) Do I really think I’m going to use this in the next year? If I answered “No” to two or more questions I got rid of it.  I mean, it doesn’t matter if you have a Storify account if you never use it.

I cut a large swath straight through my 200 or so social media accounts.  I can’t remember why I had them all but anything that I hadn’t used in more than a year had to go.  I deleted them all and kept going.  Now, I do like trying new things so I still try a lot of new apps and different things but now I make it a point to periodically go back through my existing list and trim the fat so that the only thing that remains are the handful of accounts I need and actively use.

Twitter

Once I had my list of active social media accounts whittled down I set about filtering through them.   This is a good idea for everyone in my opinion.   I was not as focused the tweets/RTs as I was who I was following.  I had to ask myself why I was following some people?  So, if you are working your way through a list like mine, ask yourself. Are you following 2000 people on Twitter? Why? What is the likely hood that you are meaningfully engaging (and I am using the term “meaningful” relative to social media) with the 2000 people you follow.  I am guilty of this myself, but have learned to rein myself in.   My goal on twitter is to curate a list of people I follow who are interesting and whom I want to engage with.  So I went through and culled my list of twitter followers.  I did this manually, and it took an afternoon while I was sick on the couch.  There are plenty of apps you can download though to help you analyze your engagement and identify bots and accounts that have been inactive for a long period of time to help you filter accounts out.  Accounts you are interested in but don’t necessarily want to follow you can always add to a list, there is an option to have lists that are both public and private.

 Facebook

Facebook I don’t usually think of as social media, but of course it is.  My Facebook account has been active since 2008 and although its accumulated a lot of stuff over the years I find I use it less and less as time goes on.  Maybe Its feeling less cool, or weighed down with clickbait and spam, I don’t know.  Typically I go through every once in a while anyways and “unfriend” inactive accounts, switch out profile pics and take care of things like broken links etc… .  With social media so much a part of my life, and with it on my mind, I felt like my account needed more than a simple cleanup, it needed to be purged.  I’m not a big fan of self censoring but I am a big fan of simplifying and taking more control over your social media presence.  In that vein it made a lot of sense to me that I should take some time and go through my feed and weed out things like, dead links, and people I didn’t talk to or whose accounts were inactive.  I also included in this cleanup thinks like my calendar of events, my face book page and other really random things that over the years I’ve lost interest in but never quite got around to letting go of…until now.  My feeling was, and is, if I haven’t ever look at it in years I probably don’t need it.

Email

Once sent, emails don’t simply dissipate into the ether.  They are stored on a server, in a building somehwere, that requires energy for power that is paid for by the company that hosts your email account.  You may not see a pile of junk mail on the kitchen table, but it still leaves a footprint somewhere.  My email was a horse of a different color.  For starters, I had at least 40,000 emails  loitering in my email account for reasons that even now are totally unknown.  They  weren’t anything special, just lots of store flyers and spam.  The key to success here was I did some initial culling of the herd by using the filter function to sort through the emails according to size, then sender.  I initially searched for anything over 20MB and got rid of the emails, then I deleted anything from the various political campaigns, newspapers and stores that constantly sending me mailers and essentially polluting account junkmail.  From there it got easier.  I continued on and switched between filtering out emails that were over 15MB, 10MB and so on, and emails that I knew I had a lot of but didn’t necessarily need to keep getting them.  So for old emails from the New York Times, there was no reason to keep those.  Then I searched for anything I could “unsubscribe” to, along with anything from people I no longer talk to, jobs i have long since quit and anything in my saved drafts, with a date that fell prior to 2006  (yes, a decade ago… like I said, this was a problem)  The cumulative effect was it lightened the load, and while there is still a significant amount of email to deal with, I’m still working on it and so far i’ve cut it down by half.   The key with email management is really in your folders.  Learning to use them to sort your emails or learning how to use them with a filter, so that incoming emails bypass your general “In Box” and are filed directly into their folder can make it easier to sort through the ever growing mess.

The important thing to remember when you’re doing this is that anything you don’t read regularly, you don’t want.  If you don’t remember signing up for a newsletter or it is clearly a request for funds from a sketchy nigerian prince, that should send up a red flag, mark it as spam and throw out.  Emails services these days are pretty good and after you’ve flagged unwanted email few times and sent it to the trash most of them start to automatically filter them directly to the trash for you.  If that doesn’t work you can always set up a filter.

The problem with email accounts is that now a lot of them offer you some free storage with it.   With a Google account you can also access a Google drive account which allows you to do things like create documents save photos etc.  Thing about that, what you have to remember is that the storage allotted to your Google account, is for all the accounts attached to it.  So, on Gmail, if you use your Google Drive and save a lot of pictures to it you will quickly fill up all of that storage.   Emails, don’t take up as much, they’re like word documents and comparatively speaking they’re kind of small.  That is, until you start embedding videos, and sending 100’s of pictures to friends and family that live far away.   So, you want to keep an eye on these things so they don’t snowball.

The Takeaway:

The big lesson that I learned through out all this was: disconnect and simplify.  I’m not saying cut yourself off from the world and live in an isolated bubble off the grid but its ok to cut your self off from social media sites and bad digital media practices that have been a negative influence on you.  Your life can incorporate digital media, and technology, it just shouldn’t be overwhelmed by it.

SO, this is totally not the end, at least for me.  The more I think about it, the more I realize the problem really isn’t that technology exists, so much as the way we learn to use it, or perhaps the way we don’t respect the growing influence it has over our daily lives. Thinking back, while I might be able to chalk some of my initial over indulgence to youthful enthusiasm for Facebook or my digital camera, that’s not why it endured.  Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was my digital mess.  After much back and forth it felt liberating to finally rid myself of so much digital detritus.  Some of it accumulated owing to bad habits, and some of it was because it was simply easier to just continue on as I had. When I did managed to start getting it all under control it felt like I had finally been able to break free from a pair of proverbial cement shoes.

Needless to say my sisyphean task continues. As with most things, the key here isn’t to stop taking photographs, or to stop creating media but to create intentionally.  You don’t need to save every picture you’ve ever taken, you don’t need to log onto Facebook and share every thought every hour of the day.  You don’t need to record every fart, hiccup and cat nap on Instagram and Snapchat.  Although it is not our credo, more really isn’t better.  Perhaps the answer to how you can avoid a digital OD is as simple as deciding to periodically log off, set limits for yourself and understand that while we can enjoy being part of the digital world it should by no means define us.