My Name Is Joel, and I’m a Digital Hoarder. (And You Probably Are Too)

"Your storage is almost full"...

Digital storage.
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A few weeks ago, I opened my phone and got that dreaded message once again: “Your storage is almost full.” Argh! It’s the spam call of phone notifications—unwelcome and relentless. However, I can’t pretend like that pop-up was a total surprise. As of this writing, I have 41,000 photos and 1,000 videos saved on my phone. I’m using 200 GB of iCloud storage and over 60 GB of Google storage. I’ve even got dusty old phones under my bed with photos and text messages that I didn’t have room for anymore on my current device. I know, I know…it’s bad.

I’ve become a digital hoarder, but I’m certainly not the only one. Scientists warn that we won’t have enough global data space by 2025, and I can believe it. Right now, my photos and text messages, which take up most of my digital storage (let’s not even get started on emails) date back to around 2015—nearly a decade ago. What happens in 2065 when I’m trying to save 50 years’ worth of storage? Where will it all go? And more crucially, why is digital recordkeeping so important to me?

As a zillennial (someone who was born in the late ’90s, on the cusp of being a millennial and Gen Z), my entire life has been digitized. Sure, when I was young, my mom still printed out photos at Costco and pasted them into family scrapbooks. But when it comes to my personal documentation, it all began with my first iPhone. Scrolling through my camera roll is like digging through the junk bin at Goodwill. Drag your finger to somewhere in 2019 and you might stumble upon a screenshot of a Tinder profile of someone I matched with and never messaged back, or perhaps it was an influencer doing something totally cringe that I cattily sent to my friends. There’s also, of course, the countless obligatory shots of the moon—always terrible, always blurry. Why can’t I learn my lesson?

Of course, I also have thousands of photos of my friends, trips and memories. But this nostalgia is buried amongst stills that don’t have meaningful context for me anymore, and yet I still struggle to erase them. I know that I should only try to document what’s meaningful, but part of me must be programmed to believe that if it’s documented then it is meaningful.

I could blame a few factors for my current situation. First off, I’m inherently sentimental, something I get from my mother and my grandfather, who were both the documentarians of their respective families, taking photos and videos whenever they could. Like them, I cherish the memories tied to a trinket or an item of clothing, and that same line of thought applies to my virtual artifacts—photos, text messages, voice memos and more. Compound this by the fact that we’re living in an age that promotes collecting digital memories through social media access, affordable hardware and copious cloud space. When the accumulation doesn’t take up physical space in our own homes, we don’t see it as much of a pressing problem. (Cut to an overhead shot of a sprawling data center.)

But I’d be remiss to say my archive hasn’t served me. Stuck inside at the beginning of the covid pandemic, yearning to be doing new things, building new memories, I could only look to the past. I found myself rewatching silly videos I captured of my friends, going through old texts from people I hadn’t spoken to in years and revisiting creative stories that I had typed as a teen. In this period of instability, diving through my digital archives brought me immense comfort as I journeyed through the nooks and crannies of forgotten memories, assured that we’d soon return to normalcy and create more. However, it was also during this period of inactivity where I had time to scroll and realize just how much junk I had in my digital drawers.

Will a SpongeBob meme on my camera roll comfort me in the next global pandemic? No. But I’ve grown accustomed to having a record of my past at my fingertips and I’m trying to navigate it. Going forward, I’ve made it my mission to delete the things that don’t bring me joy (Marie Kondo-style). But I also want to consciously stop recording things, even at the expense of my future self. Instead of filming Lana Del Rey and drowning out her voice with my own pitchy chords, maybe I should just enjoy her performance. And for the love of God, I need to stop trying to take pictures of the moon, because let’s be honest, there is no photo of the moon—not even the fancy telescopic ones—that can capture the feeling of basking in its glow as the earth turns another degree on its axis. Sometimes, you just had to be there. For the rest of it, though, I might just have to start investing in hard drives.

Joel Calfee

Associate Editor, News and Entertainment

Joel is the Associate Editor for News & Entertainment and has been reporting on all things pop culture for over 5 years. Before working at PureWow, he served as a Features...
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