At the end of Isabel’s* first year of University, she noticed something had gone awry with her organising system.
“Everything just decided to crash one day before my assessment,” says Isabel. “I went into a massive panic thinking ‘how can I get it all back?’”
Isabel had accumulated 100,000 emails, word documents, drafts, an unedited iTunes library and PDFs — more than half of which could be easily classified as junk. But for Isabel, the prospect of deleting any of them gave her anxiety.
“I can remember sitting next to my boyfriend, not able to properly explain why I was crying over having to delete a duplicate photo from 2010. I needed the space but I just couldn’t bring myself do it — it’s painful,” she reflects.
Digital hoarding is a relatively recent phenomenon that involves the inability or lack of desire to delete electronic material due to an often irrational fear of losing important data. It is, according to Dutch psychiatrist Martine van Bennekom, a unique subtype of the hoarding disorder that is primarily aided by technology. Despite the overwhelming influence of technology on our daily lives, it is still largely misunderstood.
One of the problems of this condition is that it is almost invisible. The difference is evident in an episode of Hoarders. While angry neighbors fight over quickly encroaching piles of junk, over-storing in the digital sphere doesn’t provoke such hard-fought battles. There is almost infinite space available; the only clincher is you have to pay. Google Drive or iCloud membership starts around $2 a month for between 50 and 100 gigabytes, while 500 gigabytes of external hard drive storage typically costs about $80. Quibbling over a buck or two for storage doesn’t seem that significant in the grand scheme of things, and many doctors currently suggest that hoarders limit the chaos in their house through storing it digitally.
“Once I discovered the iCloud, I was great! It’s like finding a Narnia closet; it never fills up. It’s a hoarders dream,” Isabel says.
But the limited effectiveness of this strategy is indicated by its inability to rid hoarders of their urges, and paying any amount of money for the maintenance of a disorder seems unreasonable.
Isabel currently has a Dropbox, Google Drive, a subscription to iCloud, two hard drives and a bunch of smaller USBs, and yet she is still searching for more and more space to fill.
“I am very aware that my laptop could shut down at any moment because it’s so stuffed with stupid files. I have also considered buying another laptop just for storage which just isn’t too economically viable for me as a student,” she says.
In a world where a terabyte subscription to Google Drive is now the norm, it is easy for those who e-hoard to slip by unnoticed. Endlessly accruing data can be simply stored away in files and folders in some dark depth of the web, ultimately inconveniencing only the sufferer. If someone does happen upon your collection of hard drives and USBs, it could be easily mistaken for an average millennial’s clutter. If you’ve grown up with computers and the Internet, you’ve undoubtedly been left with some digital clutter in the form of paint scribbles or duplicate selfies, but it’s the hoarder’s reluctance to let these files go that makes them different.
Many who suffer from digital hoarding are unable to seek customised treatment due to the invisibility of the condition to their peers and practitioners. Bennekom’s clinical case study is a rare example of serious psychological examination. This lack of research is startling in our digital age where younger people, having been surrounded by digital influences their whole life, are more at risk.
* Name has been changed.