My Digital Life, and how I learned to reign 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.  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.  Over the years, particularly in the past decade, as email went from novelty to necessity, coupled with the burgeoning ubiquity of social media and smart phones I embraced the new technology and unwittingly slid slowly down the digital rabbit hole.

A little white Nokia bar phone became bestie as soon as I got one.   At first texting was the lure and then email and music and video clips and eventually social media, and it quickly became less of a lifeline and more of a crutch.  Where I once only had a Discman, and would make plans to meet up with friends later, I moved onto a “CrackBerry” and an iPod and conversations about television shows, dinner, Friday night plans and crazy work shit were able to continue uninterrupted 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, or at least until I fell asleep or, like a fool had to put the phone down to use both hands to carry groceries home, eat dinner or wash my hair.  Over time the emails, texts and photos continued to accumulate as my Facebook story and social media presence and digital media usage ballooned until eventually my Blackberry crapped out from exhaustion and I migrated to an iPhone.  Between freelancing, temping, grad-school, blogging, Instagramming and my post grad life it continued to snowball and then came to a head at the start of 2015.

My aggravation with the current state of my digital affairs really 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.  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 a holiday themed tidal wave of biblical proportions.  By the time Black Friday rolled around I was in the habit of opening my email and deleting the first 50 simply out of spite.  The next 100 were skimmed through, 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.  As my data reached critical mass, and I was frustrated with only being able to connect with some people via social media.  I asked myself why am I so invested in social media, is it really to my benefit to be so active on it, or is forcing myself to listen to all the minute of someone else life destructive, and what happens to all of the data I’ve generated why does it need to be saved? Why am I keeping so much data any ways? Who benefits from this, because I’m not sure I do?

 

The Big Issue

Shortly after the New Year, probably sometime around the second week in February 2015,  around the time when posting pictures of the post apocalyptic snow mountains surrounding my house was starting to make me crazy.   I started really thinking about my digital life, why it got the way it is and what I can do about it.

The thing is everyone saves stuff, it can be digital files or physical things like keepsakes and photographs we all save stuff, It’s one of the ways we connect with the past.  But most people don’t save EVERYTHING, if you did you would have a house full of slowly degenerating objects and its just not healthy.  As hard as I thought about it, I just couldn’t figure out why I had been saving all those emails and in the end I decided they had remained because I was either to lazy too press delete, or I thought I was too busy to take a moment to do some basic maintenance.

It occurred to me that since I started working with digital media, I have 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 take up a physical place in my world the way my photography did, so I didn’t think of it as a problem.  As I created more multimedia content and it took up more physical and digital space, my storage needs grew.  When I added a cloud option and a another external hard drive, and I realized how involved I was with social media I began to think it took a toll 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 a step back and being really critical of my own practices, and the way I defined digital media, and integrated it into my life was the first thing I had to do.

There were really four big issues I was having.  The first, my data usage was out of control, particularly 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 didn’t think buying more data was a better solution than trying to understand how it all got used up and learning how to moderate my behaviour.  Then there was my email, which weighed in at at least 40,000 emails strong.  This seemed excessive to me, 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, was that all the digital content I had generated and accumulated, (so all of the images, copy, blog posts, videos).  At a glance it appeared as though I was planning on saving everything indefinitely which just doesn’t seem like a good way to operate.  My final issue was why did I have so many social media accounts open? After several years of activity what was on them? I wasn’t using some at all so an even better question was, Why was I keeping them open, much less on my phone?

 

Data is not just a Star Trek character

Data, data accumulation and data storage is what its all about.  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.  This is one of the most difficult concepts for people to grasp and because of that it is also one of the most difficult things to do is to 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 of 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 your digital media from the beginning.

What is “Digital media”? 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.

Organization in life is important in general, you don’t have to be obsessive about it but just having a strong grasp on your organizational needs enables a natural decluttering and shedding of unwanted, and unnecessary items, and ultimately makes room for growth.  To do that understanding Data storage is key.

“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.

There are free storage options which are fine, but more secure storage typically costs money.  That is because you have more space to store your data, and your data should 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  go through through everything and try to find some room somewhere.

Learning how to manage your own digital data is now a life skill.  If you are a professional and generate digital media, as I do, you are by default going to have more 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… as individuals we are generating a lot more than we probably realize which is why it’s important to clean up your accounts every once in a while, and that is where my story begins.

 

Oh soo many 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.

UPDATE!

LEARN TO EDIT AND BACK UP OFTEN.   With years of experience as a professional media maker I can’t tell you how many times I have had to remind people to back up their photographs, only to have them forget to their detriment.   The big takeaway from this year regarding photos, especially cameraphone photographs, because they tend to be images of vacations and loved ones, is to edit after you take your pictures and get them printed if you can.   Think ahead to the day when you don’t have that phone anymore, or what if you forget to back up your photos… then all your precious memories are lost.  So, while you’re culling through your photographs, keep in mind that you might want to get some printed to put in a photo album.  Maybe you will decide to use a service like Blurb, or Artifact Uprising to print a photo book to keep on your shelf, either way there are options out there for those with an itchy “camera” finger.

 

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, Instagram 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.

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 is my plan for this account in the future?

3) Are my relationships on social media critical to my life, or am I just keeping tabs?

If I answered “No” to two or more questions I got rid of it.  You can set up your own criteria but, it doesn’t matter if you have a Twitter account if you never use it.

UPDATE!

Since I first posted this I made it a point to periodically go back through my existing social media list and trim the fat so that the only things that remains are the handful of accounts I actively use and I am only connected with people I actively engage with.   Things have stayed well under control but… there is always room for improvement.

 

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.

UPDATE!

What about my twitter feed? With a twitter account that’s been active for at least 6 years I have thousands and thousands of tweets, retweets and replies in my feed.  Truth be told I never go back and check them, they just sit there along with everything else that makes up all the clutter in my digital life, and for what?  I decided recently that along with this clean sweep, one of the things I wanted to do was cull and then refocus, my twitter feed.  There are a few methods for doing this.

First, and only if you don’t have a lot on your twitter feed, you can manually delete old tweets, dead links and anything you don’t want on there.  Second, you can use a service like Tweet Delete to cull the most recent 3200, tweets from your feed.  The limit is 3200 tweets at a time, because that is what Twitter permits, so once its done you have to logout and then reauthorize the software to continue removing everything.  If you have more than 6000, this can get tedious and you may just want to take the next step.   The next step is a total wipe of your twitter feed, with something like Twit Wipe.   This doesn’t delete your account or remove followers it just takes your twitter feed back to zero.  It does however take quite a while (think hours) so if you are going to use this service plan for it and just know that like all the Tweet deleting services out there you can’t retrieve anything once its gone.  So remember to back up first.  You could also just deactivate or delete your account if you know you aren’t interested in continuing to use Twitter anymore or, you could start a new account with a new userid, the downside to both of those being you will loose all your existing connections and followers.  I am sure there are arguments against this but I opted for wiping my feed.  I didn’t want to leave Twitter, but improving the style of my engagement and the content on my feed was definitely one of my new goals and keeping 14K plus tweets wasn’t part of that plan.

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 and abuse it, or perhaps the fact that we don’t respect the growing influence it has over our daily lives. —

 

 Facebook

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 its just 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 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.

UPDATE!

The recent news about Social Media’s misuse and abuse has me addressing this again.    The need to be savvy and learn how to manage your feed and connections as well as being able to double check apps accessing your account (Go to SETTINGS) is even more important now than ever.   Although I did’t need to cull the herd anymore this year I did swing through and eliminate things like dead links, of which there were many.  I also scrolled through pages and unfollowed anything that was inactive or I wasn’t interested in any more and cleared out my events calendar.   Now however, when I  go back through I will also need to double check things like account security (through SETTINGS) and if I’m feeling like it, I can download my Facebook archive and obsess over that (Go to Facebook.  Go to Settings.  Go to General. Click Download copy of my Facebook Archive.  Follow prompts. Facebook will send you a zip file).  The big takeaway for me after all this is a reconfirmation of the fact that when it comes to free accounts and social media we were always the product so it’s important to be aware of how you are interacting on this sites.  Along with system wide changes in security settings, I think we (personally) need to be proactive about protecting our own data AND more conscientious about what we post, share and click on.   I know thats a very simple response to the ongoing discussion, but it’s where I’m at right now and at some point I could go into more detail.  For now I am left to ponder the facts as they are made know.

 

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.

Update! 

I am very happy to say Email has remained under control for me.   I still go through and regularly unsubscribe from newsletters that I get too many of and clear out anything I don’t want or need and it MUCH easier to do so with a less populated inbox.  It is also good practice to reset your password every once in a while, and turn on your security settings if you haven’t done so already.

 

The Takeaway

The big lesson that I learned through out all this was: Don’t cut yourself off from the world and live in a bubble off the grid but disconnect periodically, simplify and don’t overshare to stay happy and healthy.  Your life can incorporate digital media, and technology, but it should never be overwhelmed by it.

As with most things, the key here isn’t to stop taking photographs, or to stop creating media but to create intentionally and in moderation.  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.  More really isn’t better, but the more I think about it, the more I realize the problem really isn’t that technology exists, so much as the way we have learned to use it and abuse it, or perhaps the fact that 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 my bad habits endured.  Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was my digital mess but after liberating myself of so much digital detritus I am finally starting to feel like I am able to break free from a pair of proverbial cement shoes.

Perhaps the answer to how you can avoid a digital over dose is as simple as deciding to periodically log off, set limits for yourself and understand that while you can enjoy being part of the digital world it should by no means define you.