Digital hoarding: All for keeps

Neave defines digital hoarding as the over-accumulation of digital files to the extent that it can become problematic and lead to disorganisation and distress.
PHOTO: Unsplash

Nur Izzaty Shaifullizan has almost 20,000 photos and videos on her smartphone. She has two external hard disks, one which has already reached its 1TB capacity, and another that's almost hitting the 500GB mark.

On top of that, she subscribes to a 50GB Cloud storage service at RM3.90 (S$1.30) a month.

"I need to buy another drive soon," says the 23-year-old university student who started her media collection since her schooling days.

Her friend Ku Munirah Ku Ibrahim has 26 editing apps for tweaking her collection of over 25,000 photos and videos, but only uses four of them.

She also has 14 social media apps but only uses six regularly and can't remember when was the last time she used the rest; and of the 19 shopping apps on her phone, she only uses six.

"I love downloading apps," Ku Munirah, 23, exclaims unapologetically.

Nur Izzaty (left) and Ku Munirah collectively have over 45,000 photos in their smartphones, mostly of themselves, their families and friends. PHOTO: The Star

These young women's behaviours are part of the growing trend of digital hoarding, which according to experts is fast becoming the new norm among tech users who download or store an excessive number of digital files.

"Digital hoarding is defined as the over-accumulation of digital files to the extent that it can become problematic and lead to disorganisation and distress," says Nick Neave in an email interview.

Neave is an associate professor of psychology and director of the Hoarding Research Group at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom and has been exploring the relationship between physical and digital hoarding.

"Our research has shown that people who score high on questionnaires on physical hoarding also tend to score highly for digital hoarding so it is possible that the two are very similar," he shares.

The root cause

Photographs and videos are not the only digital items people hoard.

According to Jo Ann Oravec, professor of Information Technology and Business Education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the United States, there are many kinds of digital goods - documents, games, music and even Facebook friends.

"Digital goods are non-physical items that are instantiated in some physical and/or electronic media; they are often associated with specific 'intellectual property' categories and values," says Oravec who has published several research papers on this topic.

Take, for example, Alan* who has 568 games on the Steam gaming platform and isn't in a hurry to finish any of them, Jeeva* who has over 200 smartphone apps of which he only uses a handful daily, and Anna* who has over 13,000 unread emails and doesn't plan to read them anytime soon.

"They are not used for work-related matters, hence no reason to clear the inbox every day. I read them when it's required. Also, there are too many spam emails. Now, there are just too many emails that I don't think I'll ever be able to delete or read them all," says Anna, 38, a general manager at an event management company.

Oravec says current psychological research in this area shows that the reasons that individuals become hoarders range from "uncertainty avoidance" and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) to opportunistic motives for personal acquisition and perhaps subsequent advancement.

"Some digital hoarding phenomena could be linked with the anxiety associated with the possibility of deleting or not capturing something that may later be considered important. Also, the time and mental demands involved in making decisions about the retention of digital items can also be devastating for some individuals," she says in an email interview.

Neave also believes that expandable storage, as well as Cloud system, could enable people who are not digital hoarders to become one.

Some Internet platforms present open temptations for hoarding, as they present low or no-cost storage and few incentives for review and curation, adds Oravec.

"People who put items in physical storage garages often do not return for them, preferring to pay the monthly storage fees rather than claim the items; online storage systems can present such inducements as well," she says.

A cluttered mind?

Neave explains that although physical hoarding is considered a mental health issue, digital hoarding has yet to be classified as an illness, adding "To our knowledge, it is not a sign of deteriorating mental health but we still know very little about the extent of digital hoarding."

He says the 2015 British Medical Journal case study of an individual showed the debilitating effects of digital hoarding. "The person's obsessive ordering and cataloguing of digital files took over his life and made him feel very distressed," he says.

"As seen in the case study, digital hoarding can have a big impact upon a person's life as it can take over and reduce their efficiency, but this case study was that of an autistic man and we don't yet know enough about the potential impacts of digital hoarding in the non-clinical population," Neave says.

Ku Munirah doesn't agree that being a digital hoarder would affect one's mental health as her habit does not burden or stress her in any way.

"I don't find it bothersome as the unused apps can be put inside folders, and it is easy to find my old stuff like emails and pictures. I have never once encountered any problem in keeping them. Instead, many times I have regretted deleting some pictures and videos, especially when I need to use them later," she adds.

The need to keep

Oravec says there are many reasons for digital hoarding, some of which relate to human tendencies to accumulate and collect items.

"Decades ago, many people had small collections of particular items that they cherished and displayed for others. Today, it is very easy to have accumulations and collections of hundreds of thousands of items," she says.

Some are 'lifelogging' every aspect of their day-to-day lives, which produces massive amounts of data (even for relatively-sedate and mundane existence), she adds.

Oravec shares the story of her aunt who recently died at the age of 100. She had six books of carefully organised photographs, collected over the years and curated from the many photos she shot while on vacation or at family reunions.

"She sculpted a strong sense of self from this process. As individuals today view the thousands of photos that they collect (which are rarely tagged and identified for later access), will comparable senses of self emerge?" she asks.

For some people like Nur Izzaty, Ku Munirah and Anna, six books would simply not do. Neave says that digital hoarders give the same reasons for their habit as physical hoarders.

More and more people are possibly becoming digital hoarders, storing thousands of files and items on their smartphones and laptops. PHOTO: The Star

"They do not want to get rid of the item or file 'in case they come in useful in the future'. This seems to be linked to the anxiety associated with getting rid of something that may turn out to be useful," he says.

Other than for sentimental values, Nur Izzaty says that she doesn't delete items like photos or apps because they could come in handy anytime.

"My family and friends always ask me if I still keep a particular photograph that they've lost. And most of the time, I still do! So I'm happy to help them," she says.

"For apps, each of it serves different purposes so that's why I never delete them. Whenever I want to use public transport, there's an app on my phone that I can use for direction," says Nur Izzaty.

"If I want to go shopping, I know what app that I can use to get discounts or cashback. If I want to pay for parking fees there's an app for it! So why do I need to buy coupons when there's an app I can use and pay online? Deleting the apps and reinstalling them whenever I need to use them is troublesome, so I choose to keep them all," she says.

Collecting or hoarding?

Alan is a 36-year-old bank officer, as well as a keen gamer with hundreds of games stored on his PlayStation 4 gaming console and Steam.

Although he doesn't have time to play all the titles ("due to work", he laments), Alan says that he still buys and also downloads free games just in case he finds time to play them in the future.

Some of them are stored in hard drives, and Alan has a few drives already.

"I don't think that I'm the only one who does this. In fact, I know people who store thousands of games. If anyone has a hoarding problem, I think it's them," says Alan who doesn't want to divulge how much he has spent on videogames so far.

How can one tell if they have a digital hoarding problem? Is keeping 200 items like apps, unread emails or games, the same as keeping 2,000 or 20,000 of them?

"Well-managed archives and collections of digital items can indeed be of enormous size. As long as the material is backed up appropriately and labelled and managed with care, amassing large numbers of digital goods can be very useful for some individuals as a hobby or as part of a family heirloom initiative," says Oravec.

However, she says that hoarding digital items without strategy can result in anguish if certain items are lost or if the overall endeavour is so overwhelming that it causes anxiety.

This is made worse by Cloud storage which makes it easier to store stuff and not have to deal with the issues of conscientious curation and archiving.

But she adds even a small collection can be problematic when the items are not managed properly.

"We are just beginning to see the impacts of hoarding digital files and items over time. As today's young people move on in their lives and careers, they will own or be associated with many thousands if not millions of digital items," she says.

However, Oravec believes that in time we will learn, adding that "coordinated routines could help people consume digital items strategically and responsibly instead of hoarding".

*Not their real names

More about
Digital

SERVICES