Byte After Byte

12.17.14 10:45 AM ET

I’m a Digital Hoarder

Hoarding has always conjured nightmare scenarios of impassible rooms filled to the brim. But in the Digital Age, we're at risk of a new type of hoarding that is equally problematic.

My parents are building a mausoleum for themselves in my childhood home.

They are both complicit in this, though my mother is the more egregious offender. A classic hoarder, she has commandeered full rooms to house her extensive collections of Christmas cards from years past, my dead grandmother’s moth-pocked clothes, my brother’s boarding school bedsheets, baskets and boxes of indecipherable clutter.

Indeed, there are as many rooms in the house that are “off-limits” to visitorswhere the odds of tripping over a box of old cassette tapes or a poster that I made in grade school are dangerously highas there are clutter-free rooms. With every passing year, formerly safe spaces transform into storage space. And my parents, now in their ‘70s, are in denial that their home looks straight out of a Shel Silverstein illustration.

I’m not the most organized person, but I am hyper-aware of my biological predilection for hoarding. Magazines are the only thing in my apartment that qualify as clutter. (Incidentally, and perhaps tellingly, I am more reluctant to toss those that I’ve read—and obsessively underlinedthan those I've neglected to read). But I'll eventually submitand they’ll go out with the trash.

And like most people with Internet access, I pay bills online to ensure that Time Warner statements don’t end up stuffed into an exploding drawer. (For my technologically illiterate mother, the idea of paying bills online provokes as much anxiety as throwing something away.) But I hadn’t considered that basic tech skills could facilitate the hoarding instinct until a colleague saw the 46 subfolders in my webmail inbox. I was, she diagnosed, half joking and half horrified, a “digital hoarder.”

And she knew nothing about my recent Dropbox and iCloud data storage purchases, necessary to relieve the strain on my hard drive, stuffed with gigabytes of photos (countless iPhone screenshots of brilliantand brilliantly bad—Daily Mail headlines), videos (me serenading my roommate with an especially soulful rendition of “Leaving on a Jetplane”; my three-year-old nephew serenading me with his version of the Peter, Paul, and Mary classic), and podcasts that I can easily access on BBC Radio 4 but save to my Dropbox anyway. Or about my Google documentsdozens of themcontaining research for stories I wrote two years ago, along with links to hundreds of stories I’ve clipped and catalogued, never to be pursued. And never to be deleted.

Was I becoming a ones-and-zeros, bits-and-bytes version of my mother? Panicked, I reached out to hoarding experts, who often refer to any kind of obsessive digital collecting as “infomania.” (That this term is not yet a classified disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-V does not assuage fears that I suffer from it.) Infomania, they say, is more subtly crippling than physical hoarding. With access to the web’s infinite amount of information and limitless supply of storage, digital hoarders are less inclined to think they have a problem.

“The fact that infomania is less physically debilitating makes it even more problematic,” says Linda Samuels, president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, a non-profit that helps hoarders regain control of their life. “When there’s a compulsion to collect and be the keeper of information, the problem lies in managing that information, which takes up so much time in your daily life that you neglect other responsibilities.”

Naturally, I begin obsessing over the amount of time I’ve squandered cataloguing work emails into subfolders, including one of “goodbye” emails from former Daily Beast employees who have long ago moved on, as well as invitations to their long-past going away parties. (Somewhere, on another cloud, live gigabytes of photos from these very parties). I obsess over hours spent meticulously cataloguing stories I like, along with stories that infuriate me, in corresponding Google documents (“INSPO,” “ATROCITIES”) that I rarely, if ever, revisit. (Much like color-coding note cards before an exam, it’s a way of procrastinating doing actual work.) And the time wasted copying and pasting Gchats with ex lovers into secret Google docs, so they’ll (hopefully) be safe in the event that someone ever hacks into my email.

But some of this cataloguing stems from the anxiety that I don’t know enough about a certain subject, and the resulting attempt to know everything about itor at least have all of the information I need stored away somewhere (for most people, that place is called the Internet).

“Fear is a huge issue with both digital and physical hoarding, of holding onto something because you might be required to produce it some day,” says Katherine Trezise, founder of Absolutely Organized, a professional organizing service based in Maryland.

Fear is certainly an incentive to hoard for my mother, who would rather her possessions remain unseen and unused as long as they’re “safe,” gathering dust or mildew in one of her storage rooms. And there are a few nice things buried beneath the rubble that I could use in my apartment. But these nice things certainly don’t belong in a New York City walk-up, which, according to my mother’s dubious logic, is more likely to be robbed or burn down than our 150 year-old house in suburban Massachusetts.

Perhaps I should be more understanding, now that my own hoarding tendencies are flaring up. They may not be debilitating yet, but as part of a generation that is storing more and more data in Dropbox and iCloud, they’re a reminder that accumulating “stuff” is a much less finite concept than it used to be.

And with all the private digital information exposed in recent cyber attacks, perhaps we should all be more aware of exactly what—and how much—we are storing in the ether.