Once Upon a Time, We Threw Stuff Away...


I have 34,219 messages in various folders in my primary email account. About a dozen of the messages are actually important. And yet I resist deleting all but the most egregious items, like those unsolicited offers for weight loss and sexual enhancement products.

Why? Why do I want a record of conversations with people I can't even remember? Why do I hold on to messages that make me cringe, cry, or question my sanity?

What's wrong with me? Wait. To avoid opening a Pandora's box too big for any of us to handle, let me narrow the focus of that question: Why can't I throw any of my digital data away?

Data hoarding seems to be growing in direct proportion to big-data. We've talked about it here before: See Data Hoarders May Need Sanity Check and Break Out of the Hoarder Mentality, for instance. And just today I stumbled on a blog by Amber Simonsen, executive project manager at Pierce Transit in Lakewood, Wash., who plans to speak about the perils of keeping too much information at the AIIM 2013 Conference in New Orleans next March.

"What begins as an innocent desire to keep relevant information close at hand can turn into an unhealthy obsession that plagues IT departments and Records Managers in organizations everywhere," Simonsen warns.

It was so much easier to part with paper. It accumulated quickly enough to be a distraction, cluttering desks and countertops, and creating anxiety for people like me, who viewed every pile of paper as a symbol of work undone. The easiest way to breathe easier was to simply throw as much paper as possible away, future need for it be damned.

Not so with digital documents, all stored neatly in multiple inboxes on unseen servers, in ever expanding clouds worldwide.

While it seems easy to justify holding onto... well, everything in digital format, Simonsen argues that digital hoarding bloats our servers, slows down our networks, and creates unnecessary duplicates that put the organization at risk for retention compliance and e-discovery issues. In addition, she contends digital hoarding takes a toll on the workforce -- creating frustration for people who are forced to look through version after version to find the final version of a critical document, for instance. And that amounts to big wastes of time.

I know. She's right. I don't need every version of every document I ever created. I don't need thousands of email messages, many of which are still marked "unread." I don't need anyone to tell me to start hitting "delete" with greater frequency. What I need is professional help.

You won't find digital hoarding in the current edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But reports indicate the association plans to give hoarding disorder its own category when it publishes the manual's fifth edition early next year. Can the digital subtype be far behind?

Anyone with even mild digital addiction understands what mental health professionals are only now explicitly acknowledging: There is a very fine line between careful -- as in not wanting to delete something potentially important -- and crazy.

Noreen Seebacher,

Noreen Seebacher, the Community Editor of Investor Uprising, has been a business journalist for more than 20 years. A New York City based writer and editor, she has worked for numerous print and online publications. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Post, New York’s Daily News, The Detroit News, and the Pittsburgh Press. She co-edited five newsletters for Real Estate Media’s GlobeSt.com and served as the site's technology editor.

She also championed the commercial real estate beat at The Journal News, a Gannett publication in suburban New York City, and co-founded a Website focused on personal finance. Through her own company, Stasa Media, Noreen has produced reports, whitepapers, and internal publications for a number of Fortune 500 clients. When she's not writing, editing, or Web surfing, she relaxes in an 1875 Victorian with her husband and their five kids, four formerly homeless cats, and a dog.

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Re: Out of sight, out of mind
  • 12/31/2012 10:46:13 AM
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@kq4ym,

"Not being able to predict the future may hinder some distant real advantage to storing stuff we tend to throw away today."

Why do you think that stuff we throw away today might be useful in say, 5 or 10 years? I think that we would be overwhelmed by data that we won't ever have time to go back to our old files. That is what I have noticed in my 6 years of keeping my research files. 

Re: Out of sight, out of mind
  • 12/31/2012 8:03:25 AM
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@Lyndon_Henry, I thought about that as I was hitting the post button.  I was sure that someone would bring up proving when a message was sent or that a time stamp might help them defend themselves in some imaginary future argument.  I think of all those murder mystery stories where someone is convicted by some miniscule mistake that they made.  Maybe the fear is that if a small mistake can prove your guilt that a small piece of good data might save you.

Re: Out of sight, out of mind
  • 12/28/2012 11:50:12 PM
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..

SaneIT writes


I think you've hit on why the hoarding starts in the first place.  A fear that something might be more important than it appears.  In cases like email threads there's no reason to keep every single message in the thread. I'd hate to think that every text message I get that says "Hi" is important enough to keep.


 

I think that last one might be safely zapped ... but wait — what was the date/time the "Hi" was sent?  Might need that...

There's a kind of OCD that sets in about all this cyberdata...

 

Re: Out of sight, out of mind
  • 12/28/2012 8:40:27 AM
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I think you've hit on why the hoarding starts in the first place.  A fear that something might be more important than it appears.  In cases like email threads there's no reason to keep every single message in the thread. I'd hate to think that every text message I get that says "Hi" is important enough to keep.

Re: Out of sight, out of mind
  • 12/28/2012 7:16:14 AM
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I do tend to keep a lot more stuff than I have a real current use for. But, I just wonder if at some distant time, capabilities of storage and retrieval may change in some new way that will make those 'random' emails, videos, photos, and notes very valuable.

Not being able to predict the future may hinder some distant real advantage to storing stuff we tend to throw away today.

Re: Out of sight, out of mind
  • 12/7/2012 8:27:19 AM
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No, we don't flog them in the courtyard or anything like that, we just show them that their perception of what they have is wrong, drastically wrong in many cases, then we offer up ways to thin out what they are saving.  Last year after one of our C level directors was taught how to manage his mail he wanted to see the stats for our top 20 offenders because he was shocked that anyone would have more email that had to be held onto than he does.  When he saw that he was number 15 on the list he became our biggest supporter and called everyone above him on the list to find out what they had that was so important.

Re: Out of sight, out of mind
  • 12/7/2012 7:59:59 AM
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@Tinym In this school, only the office send communications via email concerning things like school closings,changes in schedule (loads of those after Hurricane Sandy), PTA schedules, and such. The teachers are not required to keep parents in the loop via email. I was making my own request, which the teachers were willing to comply with -- only with their own choice of means. That some favor texts is annoying because once in a while they will put out a notice for students that way, and those of us who don't check on texts don't get it. It's also rather ironic that they both assume students will have devices that will accept texts and ban them from use in the school. 

Re: Out of sight, out of mind
  • 12/6/2012 11:13:06 PM
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@Ariella I'm surprised you met with a teacher who sends texts but not email. Our kids' school district has a district-wide online grade book for grades and attendance. Parents can get daily digests of student performance complete with detailed assignment stats. All teachers have a school-assigned email address and will accept email as a 'note from home'. A few teachers send out weekly reminders for test reviews or an attachment of the actual review. It's handy when you have a kid who can't seem to get papers home from school.

Re: Out of sight, out of mind
  • 12/6/2012 11:06:47 PM
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That's an interesting study in tech usage. I'm surprised you encountered a teacher who sends text but not email. Our kids' school has district-wide email and an online grade book. Most of their teachers accept email as a note from home if they have the parent's phone and email on file at the school.

Re: Out of sight, out of mind
  • 12/6/2012 10:12:24 AM
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@SaneIT I see. So they're not quite put in the stocks. Email threads, yes, for my Verion account I delete the earlier ones, but Gmail automatically stacks all the email exchanges.

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