May 22, 2024

Confessions of a digital hoarder


I have a confession to make: I am a digital hoarder and I don’t want to stop.

Emails, photos, files, screenshots, apps — I don’t know why but I have an extreme aversion to removing things from my digital life.

I have 48,183 emails in my work inbox and 32,060 in my personal Gmail. 56,991 of those are unread, according to my Mail app. I have thousands more in a a separate, throwaway, Gmail account I use for app signups and spam, and more than 14,000 unread in (and this, I am slightly embarrassed about) an old Yahoo account I haven’t actively used since at least 2009.

Now, I know it’s impossible to ever read that many emails but I still can’t bring myself to delete anything other than the obvious spam that slips through my spam filter.

Other aspects of my digital life are just as bad. I have 449 apps installed across my three iPhones and 430 scattered across my various Android devices (that probably sounds excessive but my job title is Apps Reporter, after all.) I have 4,131 photos on my primary iPhone and 6,879 in my Google Photos account. I even save a very high percentage of the photos I take in Snapchat. Photos which, by the nature of that platform, are supposed to disappear forever.

I have voicemails dating to 2012 (the year I switched to iOS). I don’t even listen to most of my voicemails anymore now that iOS 10 supports voicemail transcription, but don’t even try to make me delete them because I won’t, unless my mailbox gets full.

My Dropbox has been full for years but I refuse to touch anything in it (sure, I could just pay to get more space but I’ve gone this long without, it seems silly to start now). My iCloud storage, which I do pay for, is very nearly full as well.

I try to clean up my desktop every once while but it inevitably fills up again (I currently have 210 files, which doesn’t sound so bad except that it looks like this.)


I only clear out my downloads folder (currently at 404 items) when I get the dreaded “your startup disk is full” message and even that I find anxiety-inducing.

I primarily use Spotify these days so my music isn’t as bad but I am still clinging to my 2008 MacBook because it contains my entire pre-streaming music collection (along with thousands more photos, of course.)

While I’m not particularly embarrassed about any of this, I do realize most people are horrified when they realize I am quickly approaching whatever the digital equivalent is of people who die trapped under their own stuff. Earlier today, I showed my editor what my desktop looked like and he simply said, “yeah, that’s bad.” He is not the first.

At this point, I should clarify that my hoarding tendencies don’t really extend to my non-digital life. Sure, my closet is a little fuller than it needs to be, I have more USB cables than any sane person will ever need, and I took a hard look at my desk when at least two coworkers “recommended” I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. But I don’t really have a problem with getting rid of physical possessions. I’ve actually secretly enjoyed my frequent moves over the last few years because it’s forced me to get rid of a lot of stuff.

I just don’t see that happening for my digital life, though. The truth is tech companies have only enabled my hoarding, making it easier (and cheaper) to obsessively keep everything. Because of cloud services, I can hang onto every file, photo and playlist without ever having to worry about what to delete.

tech companies have only enabled my hoarding

Despite my overflowing inboxes, I still have only used 54% of the allotted space in my work Gmail and 36% in my personal account. (I suppose I can always delete some Groupons when it does get full in a few years.)

Meanwhile, competition among cloud storage providers just keeps pushing prices lower and lower. 50GB of iCloud storage costs $0.99 a month, I get 5GB of storage with my Amazon Prime subscription, and Google Photos backs up all my photos for free. Physical storage is also cheaper than ever (unless you’re buying a new iPhone).

So, no, I really don’t see any of this changing in the near future and I don’t really want it to. I sleep just fine at night knowing that I can go back and find that one email from that one editor I worked with in 2010, or that blurry selfie I took on vacation 5 years ago.

Since I started writing this, my unread emails have climbed to 57,026, I’ve taken 5 screenshots, downloaded one image and snapped two photos on my phone, and I don’t plan on ever deleting any of it. I don’t need help — I just need a good storage plan.

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