My Digital Life

Back in the halcyon days of the pre digital age when communication was person to person, phone calls came via landlines, and prime time entertainment happened on cathode ray television sets, the internet as we know it was still the stuff of science fiction.

By the time I got my first email account (probably sometime around 1994) the internet had been around for a few decades and personal computers were a thing that families and teachers learned to struggle with on a regular basis.  Internet access initially came into my home by way of an arduous system of cables connected to a computer, connected to a dial up modem, which provided the stars and planets aligned and nobody was expecting a phone call, would allow you to “dial up” and find out whether or not “you’ve got mail.” At the time the digital realm was not an essential part of my reality or really the reality of anyone I knew,  but as the years passed, particularly in the early 2000’s email went from novelty to necessity.  

Cellphones entered my life by way of a nearly indestructible little white Nokia bar phone in the early 2000s. Soon thereafter texting and emails became a way of life, then a lifeline and maybe even a little bit of a crutch.  Where I once only had a Discman and a home phone, now I had a Cellphone and a discman, then a BlackBerry and an iPod, and eventually just an iPhone.  Email conversations I started at work with family and friends about television shows, dinner plans and crazy-shit-my-boss-does were able to continue uninterrupted 24/7, or at least until I fell asleep or, like a fool, had to use both hands to carry groceries home.  Over time the emails, texts and photos continue to accumulate at an exponential rate and between freelancing, temping, grad-school, blogging, Instagramming and my post grad life bad habits and tribulations, and it all kind of snowballed and then came to a head at the start of 2015 when it exploded.

My aggravation with the current state of my digital affairs began in the fall of 2014 during the clusterfuck we like to call “the holiday season,” also known as that period of time that starts with Halloween and stretches all the way through the New Year.  As my data reached critical mass and the emails in my inbox topped 50-100 new ones first thing every morning.  I had to ask myself why the hell was I getting so much digital spam and even more important why was I keeping it?  Was I unable to let stuff go or just absent mindedly keeping everything because I was simply too lazy to press delete?   

The problem with my cartoonishly bloated email had been ongoing but it really started to piss me off when all the damn “Holiday Sale” announcements started to arrive en masse immediately after Halloween.  The previously innocuous emails of weekly “Specials” and “100 point perks” ballooned into an tidal wave of biblical proportions just in time for the holidays and by the time Black Friday rolled around I was in the habit of opening my email and automatically deleting the first 50 just out of spite.  The next 100 was usually a combination of sale announcements, newsletters, updates and innumerable alerts from different media outlets, campaigns, social media accounts etc… I did skim through those, but they got tossed pretty quick.  The final 50 I usually sifted through and found the 10 or so important ones which I kept… forever, apparently.

Shortly after the New Year, probably sometime around the second week in February, when posting pictures of the post apocalyptic snow mountain that was slowly encasing my house was starting to make me crazy.  I started thinking about my “digital life.”  Specifically I focused on my digital habits i.e. the ones that were not making my life better, but worse… and I started wondering about why I had kept so much, and to whose benefit it was if I retained everything because it certainly wasn’t to mine.  

Listen, everyone saves stuff.   Important things, keepsakes, treasured memories they all get sorted into the “Save” pile but most people don’t save EVERYTHING, because nobody has the room for that. Since I started working with digital media, I’ve spent a lot of time considering other people’s digital media and their storage needs.  I’ve always been pretty good about editing through and organizing my digital photos but I never really considered the rest of my digital existence because it didn’t take up a lot of physical place in my world.  But as I created more content and needed more space, my storage and data plan needed to grow and I began to get a much clear picture of what all this data generation and accumulation meant for me both financially and physically. 

Lets take a moment to discuss what the terms “digital media” “data” and “data storage” mean.  We use them all the time now,  but I think they are still very abstract for a lot people.  Generally speaking people understand what a digital photograph is and what it means to download music or if you have to upgrade a data plan on your smart phone.   What you need to remember about anything created or saved in the digital realm is that just because you can’t see a pile of junk mail on your desk,  or photos on your counter it doesn’t mean they’re not there.   Emails once sent, don’t simply dissipate into the ether.   They are stored on a server, in a building somewhere, that is powered by energy that is paid for by the company that hosts your account.  So what it all boils down to is money.  The more digital media, or digital data, you need to store, the more storage you will need, the more money you have to spend on storage, and the more it will cost you personally.  For some people this additional fee is no biggie, for me it was another charge I couldn’t afford.  

The first thing I had to do was take an objective step back and be really critical of my own practices and the way integrated digital media it into my life.   Going forward my goal was simple.  I wanted to streamline and pare down my data usage and media storage needs.  So I decided to forego worrying about my Hard Drive and do three things; go through my email, go through social media accounts and go through all my iPhone photos.

As an avid photographer and Instagrammer to say I take a lot of photos would be an understatement of epic proportions.  So when I started wondering where a lot of my storage on my phone had disappeared to “my photos” was the first place I looked.  Sure enough there it was, an enormous cache of at least a couple thousand images stored on my phone.  So first things first, I backed all my iPhone photos and then took everything except the last three months worth images off my phone.  I figured since I don’t spend hours scrolling through them on a daily basis anyways so why keep them on my phone.  Then I purged the unwanted images I was storing on my phone, and as if by magic a huge chunk of storage on my phone was freed up.

When it comes to images, especially if they are of precious memories and trips, I typically don’t suggest just deleting everything.  A blanket purge, is usually something most people regret.  If it took you time and effort to gather a collection of images why would you just delete them? Conversely, I can’t agree with anyone who suggests you should save everything.  That just doesn’t make sense. My advice isn’t don’t just press “DELETE ALL” and throw everything out, but learn to edit, or edit as you go.  In the end this will probably help make you a better photographer as well.

With social media accounts it was a little simpler, basically just don’t keep accounts you aren’t actively using.  Anything I hadn’t used in a year or more I deactivated (or deleted), and then removed their apps from my phone.  This freed up even more space, forced me to spend less time looking at my smartphone and immediately cut my list in half.  Then I went through the rest of my list and asked myself the following three questions about the remaining social media accounts 

  1. Why did I open this account? 

  2. What is my plan for this account? 

  3. 3) Do I really think I’m going to use this in the next year? 

If I answered “No” to two or more questions I got rid of it. 

Once I had my list of active social media accounts whittled down I set about filtering through them.   This is a good idea for everyone in my opinion.   Are you following 2000 people on Twitter? Why? What is the likely hood that you are meaningfully engaging (and I am using the term “meaningful” relative to social media) with the 2000 people you follow.   I am guilty of this myself, but have learned to rein myself in when it comes to the people I follow.   My goal was to curate a list of people I follow who are interesting and whom I want to engage with.  So I went through and culled my list of twitter followers like an adventurer cutting a swath through the dense jungle, and I immediately felt lighter.  There are plenty of apps you can use to help you analyze your engagement and identify bots as well as accounts that are inactive to help you filter out who to keep and who not to.   I didn’t use one but I didn’t follow thousands of people so it was easy to just run on down the list.   The second part of this Twitter clean up is clearing out old posts.  I really only post, or retweet things that genuinely interest me.   Be that as it may I have always found it deeply annoying that twitter posts can live on indefinitely.   I am not sharing the same stuff now that I was sharing in 2012 so, I decided to purge my feed and start, all over again.  Its not for everyone but if you really want a fresh start you can always take it all the way back to square one and purge your feed or just delete your account all together.  

My Facebook account has been active since 2008 and it’s just accumulated a lot of stuff over the years.  I was having a lot of the same type feelings about Facebook that I had about twitter.   It was hard to see the sense in keeping stuff on my timeline that I posted way back in 2008.  It was literally a decade ago and a lot has changed.   While there was a lot of good that happened in the passing decade I’m never going to go back through my old posts and reminisce.  Plus, in this day of data weaponization I am feeling less and less good about how much I put online.   Typically I go through every once in a while anyways and “unfriend” inactive accounts, switch out profile pics and clean up things like broken links etc… .  If I’m honest I like connecting with folks but I’ve definitely felt my account needed more than a cleanup, it needed to be purged.  I’m a big fan of simplifying so I did a really deep clean of my account.  My feeling is, if I don’t ever look at it, get rid of it because despite what Facebook might try to convince me of I’m NEVER going to go back and use my FB account as a “scrapbook” of memories.

Getting back to the email issue I had at least 50,000 emails just kind of loitering in my email for reasons that even now are totally unknown.  I did some initial culling of the herd by using the filter to sort through them according to size.  Then I searched for anything over 20MB and filtered out and deleted anything from the various political campaigns, newspapers and store flyers.  From there it got easier.  I continued on and filtered out emails that were over 15MB, then10MB and so on.  Then I searched for anything I could “unsubscribe” to, along with anything from people I no longer talk to, jobs I’ve long since quit and anything in my saved drafts, or prior to 2006  (yes, a decade ago… like I said, this was an ongoing problem)  The cumulative effect was it lightened the load significantly, and while there is still a lot of email to deal with and I’m still working on it.   The key with email management is really your folders.  Learning to use them to sort your emails or learning how to use them with a filter, so that incoming emails bypass your general “In Box” and are filed directly into their folder can make it easier to sort through the ever growing mess and stop it before it gets out of hand.

I don’t know if I would ever recommend just doing a Kondo style purge of everything. That doesn’t seem any healthier than keeping everything would be. However, in this digital age when our personal data is of value to so many different entities as well as easily monetized, it seems wise to at least try and get the clearest picture possible of your digital life and understand what it says about you. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was my mess or any of my bad habits.  After much back and forth it felt liberating to finally rid myself of so much digital detritus.  It felt like I had finally been able to break free from a pair of proverbial cement shoes that had slowly been pulling me down.  Needless to say my Sisyphean task continues.   Just remember that you don’t need to save every email you’ve ever received.  Just like you don’t need to save every picture,  or record every brainfart, hiccup or cat nap.  The choice is yours when it comes to how much data you generate and how often, and what, you decide to share and post. While I certainly still have some social media and a sizable cache of emails to continue wading through there is relief felt, if not from cutting the cord, then at least loosening the knot. Although it is not our credo,  and antithetical to the rise of the “social media starlets” perhaps we finally need to learn to accept that more really isn’t better but a distraction and often a crutch.  The more I think about it, the more I realize the problem really isn’t just the technology we have, so much as the way we choose to use it.  


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Julia Swanson