I am a digital hoarder.
In the physical realm, I’ll throw something I tire of away without a second thought. But on the computer, I save everything: that college essay about monetary policy in Goldfinger, that offer letter from the job I didn’t even last a full year in, those AIM conversations with my eighth-grade girlfriend. I’m compulsive about it. Except for a few rare exceptions lost to crashes or dead batteries, I still have every document I’ve created since I first got a computer when I was ten.
I started my stockpile early. As a child, there was something alluring about the idea of accumulating a large body of work, so I imagined that every poem I wrote or Kid Pix drawing I made was somehow contributing to a corpus. If I couldn’t be good yet—and since I was just a kid, I really couldn’t be—I could at least be prolific.
I filed everything I created away in a series of carefully-delineated folders whose structure and organizing principles changed constantly, taking an almost fetishistic enjoyment in this process. Actually, I’m pretty sure my enjoyment of the process sometimes outweighed the enjoyment I’d gotten out of actually making whatever it was I was organizing. What follows is the saddest sentence ever written in this, or perhaps any, newsletter, but I have a vivid memory of waking up in the middle of the night at 13 or 14 with an idea for a new, superior way to organize all the stuff on my computer, and being too excited to go back to sleep.
And then somehow I just ended up holding on to everything, forever. At first it was rote: I’d get a new computer and copy all my stuff over because, well, of course you needed all your stuff. Eventually most of what I was copying over had aged past the point where I could make a legitimate claim to actually needing it, but by that point it was hard to let go.
Besides, I’d grown to like having such easy access to the digital detritus of my past. As with journaling, being a digital hoarder enables me to look back on my past self and be amazed both by how much I’ve changed and how much, despite my best efforts, I’ve remained irrevocably the same. There I am in that short story I wrote when I was twelve, circling the same themes I’m still circling now. There I am in that love letter from when I was sixteen, simultaneously over-the-top emotive and also not quite truly genuine. There I am in that speech I gave back in 2015, still just barely toeing the line of what’s appropriate to say to a roomful of adults in suits.
Whether in the real world or the digital one, I think we hold onto things to pretend our lives have some kind of through-line, to give ourselves the illusion of coherence. I only have one or two memories from, say, fourth grade, and I can’t even come close to remembering what it was like to be that age. Thinking about myself back then feels like thinking about a stranger, and highlights the unnerving degree to which the concept of the self is, deep down, fuzzier and more illusory than we’d like it to be. But looking at something I made when I was ten makes that ten-year-old version of me seem just a little more real. Like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, the documents I’ve accumulated over my decades of digital hoarding leave a trail that connects my past self to my present one.
Then again, the things we save can also weigh us down. Sometimes, my hoarding has helped me hold on to moments I might be better off forgetting about. There are emails in my archive I swore I’d never again put myself through the pain of re-reading, but that I still can’t quite bring myself to get rid of; there are long-forgotten embarrassments that surface every time I make the mistake of looking at my middle school chat logs. It’s not always a good thing to grip too tightly to your past—there’s a reason why a move to a new city can feel like a fresh start, or why so many artists take on stage names to reinvent themselves.
But I’m not holding onto all this stuff because I’ve made a calculated decision that the benefits outweigh the costs. I’m doing it because I have to—there’s a reason I call it “hoarding.” When your hoarding is digital, though, it’s easy to justify. And it’s easy to hide. Inside my computer, I have the digital equivalent of dozens of stacks of old newspapers, but no one can see. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a hoarder.
Yours in acknowledging that on this internet, everyone knows I’m a hoarder, because I just told them,
If you don’t pass this on to ten people in the next hour, your crush won’t like you back!