Hoarding 2.0

In the hoarding series’ first installment, Garrett Tiedemann meditated on the behavior of collecting books and when, if ever, a collector has the right to purge. Sophie Summertown Grimes followed up with a reframing of the act as an artform. But I submit a much more widespread hoarding epidemic of the literate: the internet.

The compelling issue here is that hoarding within the confines of the internet generally goes unrecognized. In the physical world, tangible things have mass, they take up space, and even at a glance it’s immediately apparent when things have gotten out of control. Stacks of newspapers and books pile up, porcelain kittens and antique trinkets fill glass hutches, baseball cards overtake crawl spaces, and so on. There is no hiding your collecting—unless it’s done online.

The way I see it, there is one main object of affection for online hoarders: personas. Characters. And the persona is created and sustained by hoarding (a) friends and (b) information. Let’s look at the parts of the machine.

Not every persona hoarder is an extremist. Not everyone online is a player in Second Life. Catfish, a timely documentary about the truths and untruths of online interactions, had many viewers wondering what was real and what wasn’t, but the central thesis of the picture is that not everything is as it seems. The main character, Yaniv, forms a romantic relationship with a young woman through Facebook. They talk on the phone and through emails and text messages. They flirt excitedly. They long and yearn. (Yaniv’s brother and friend document his romance.) Then Yaniv decides to visit the young woman.

Spoilers incoming: The impromptu road trip turns into a tough lesson in online personas as the young woman he felt genuine feelings for turns out to be a bored and imaginative housewife who not only fabricated that identity but also invented an entire family, played each role, and created a world that never existed.

Usually cases aren’t that severe. But role-playing is nothing new to us. Consider the different roles we play every day. We offer certain privileges to people within specific groups that we assign them to. For friends: a Facebook profile with pictures and musings where close companions have unfettered access to the information posted. For relatives: restricted access to certain information, maybe hiding the boozy candids or risqué status updates. For coworkers and future employers: a second “business” profile or a carefully crafted LinkedIn account.

It’s not just responsible filtering; it’s the formation of multiple online identities. And those identities require near-constant maintenance. On social media, where we offer our real names, we try to present our best, hippest, cleverest, most attractive self while syphoning out the rest. To accomplish this, we tag and un-tag (de-tag?) photos, “like” comments, “check-in” to places we want people to know we’re into, share news articles we want people to react to, support internet causes we want people to be aware of (“Didja hear about this Kony guy!?”), and keep up-to-the-minute information about our evolving political, religious, and social leanings. Sophie cited the world’s longest diary—with entries like, “12:25 to 12:30: I discharged urine.”—as a form of chronicling the human experience. Really, isn’t that just the world’s longest series of status updates? It’s recorded history, no doubt. But analyzed another way, it’s personal branding.

Here’s some quick anecdotal evidence of selective funneling at work. Years back, I dated a sorority girl. (They’re not all bad.) She was social and loved going out, and oftentimes photos of her night’s exploits would find their way to Facebook. Well, because her sorority forbade the perceived support of alcohol consumption, especially binge and underage drinking, she was forced to un-tag herself from any photos of her merely holding a bottle of domestic brew. I assumed the guidelines were the same for imported, though I never asked.

Online, altering your identity takes little more than a few mouse-clicks and keystrokes; reinvention is only a new profile away. Feedback is also immediate: Your new haircut gets responses that day by dozens, maybe hundreds, of people. (You look great, by the way.)

The part of this that I find most fascinating, though, is that despite the fact that these personas are effectively social resumes—promotional, purposefully misrepresentative, and hardly ever proofread—people are generally unwilling to let go of their collection of friends. In 2009, Gerald Mollenhorst of Utrecht University released the findings of his sociological survey of social networks. He interviewed a group of people and then again seven years later, learning that, while the personal networks stayed roughly the same size, most of the people studied had replaced half of their friends.

I bring this up because many people my age have now reached the seven year mark for our Facebook profiles. But how many of us have replaced half of our Facebook friends in that time? Save for a few of us who respect the catharsis of friends-list spring cleaning, I would assume that most people’s personal networks have grown exponentially. Part of that has to do with the increasing number of people who join Facebook, but is every person in that list considered a friend?  Are most of them, even?

In a panel discussion entitled Online Personas: Defining the Self in a Virtual World, future social media giants from MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and other sites discussed the role of identity on the internet. A then-pre-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg defined online interaction as “an efficiency” of social life.

Sure, social media helps streamline social interactions, but—and this is true of technological advancement in general—with efficiency comes increased expectations. Take the cotton field. Before the cotton gin, workers would have to remove the seeds from the cotton fibers by hand, and they would only be expected to produce X amount of clean cotton. But once the cotton gin was introduced, workers were expected to produce 20 times that amount. Online social interaction allows for easier relationship maintenance, but as Zuckerberg continues, “The number of people I am able to keep in my orbit is expanded.”

Maybe the concept of friendship is changing. Maybe collecting acquaintances is the new reality of personal networks. And what’s the harm in keeping even the loosest connections with others? It’s all just ones and zeros anyway, right?

Where is the consequence so common in these extreme hoarding cases?

In the digital world, it’s time. That panel discussion is especially interesting because it took place in 2006, and at that time Facebook was still in its relative infancy. Zuckerberg, piggybacking off of his efficiency comment, said that he wants Facebook to be a site that people visit only for a few minutes and then move on. His vision has obviously shifted in the years following as, according the Nielsen, Facebook has become the internet’s largest time-sink. Nielsen also found that the average American spent 30 hours online and viewed an average of 3,123 web pages in August 2011.

Considering those numbers, I’d argue that “information superhighway” is a bit of a dubious moniker. People no longer use the internet for focused research. They browse thousands of different locations; they follow random link chains and linger on tangents; they welcome distraction; they hoard information, admittedly most of it meaningless. In 2012, we might as well change the description to “information rummage sale,” the place people go to fill their brains with little treasures of information, all precious and worthy of keeping forever and ever.

Joshua Covell is a New Hampshire transplant who loves the big city lights and a state that completely sidesteps the national political spotlight but pines for good seafood and a proper time zone. He is a writer, editor, and co-founder of STFU, Internet.

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2 Comments on “Hoarding 2.0”

  1. Ben Leib
    April 8 2012 at 8:01 pm #

    I like the discussion of social media, but don’t quite see the link to hoarding. I think that electronic hoarding is similar to the hoarding of material goods. Folks save everything, documents, music files, movies – everything that they consume, filling hard drives, allowing their desktops to fall into disarray, because they are afraid of losing these things they’ve come into contact with. One interesting link here, between social media and hoarding in general, is that they’re both phenomena involving folks consumed with their own identity, and its preservation in ephemera.

    Also, I think Catfish was scripted, making it something like a reenactment of the relationship between the middle aged woman and the film maker, but, in this case, it’s the viewer being mislead.

    • joshcovell
      April 8 2012 at 8:30 pm #

      Social media addicts, as it were, (or even normal users nowadays) are elusive in their hoarding behaviors, I’d say. It’s not physical or noticeable collecting like music files, photos, the like. It’s a collecting of interactions–thousands and thousands of comments, “likes,” shares, musings. The time commitment devoted to trying to control an extreme and chaotic life, to me, is very reminiscent of the time devoted to the lives of hoarders and obsessive collectors. Those times when Facebook’s site goes down or when photos get deleted unexpectedly, I see some behavior that ranges from anxiety to near-rage, the kind of irrational freak-outs that happen if you were to throw out a single item in the domain of a hoarder.

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