In the dawning era of persistent digital experience, an obsessive documentarian like myself should flourish. In my pre-Web, analog life, I was the one with shoeboxes of photos, scrawling notes and lists on anything scrawlable. But the advent of the cloud – the arrival of multi-gigabyte virtual storage lockers, auto-syncing, and bookmarklets, oh bookmarklets! – has taken it all too far.
My sanity is buckling under the collective desire to keep everything on the Internet. All of these little processes, saving that New Yorker essay to Pocket, poring over my archived tweets, figuring out which corner of the cloud I stuffed that then-genius story idea in… it makes me crazy and I hate it and I’m done.
I come to you teetering on the existential irony of it all – the recursive madness of obsessively chronicling my life in lieu of living it.
Is there a Hoarders for the Web? Sign me up.
The Enabler: Evernote
One tool landed me in this mess to begin with: Evernote. I turned to Evernote to subtract the paralysis of where do I keep this?
I’ve worked at training myself to use Evernote. I’ve read approximately 3,000 Lifehacker odes. I watched the Verge’s cute video about “backing up your brain” just like everybody else did. But it doesn’t stick. And that’s okay. I think.
(See also Why Evernote Just Doesn’t Work For Me, by Brian Proffitt.)
We all want to be that guy with our home organized perfectly: file folders, tiny little boxes for different sized paper clips – the whole nine yards. But we’re not all that guy… in fact, almost nobody is. That guy is the abominable snowman of organization. He’s an employee at the Container Store with a mile-high pile of dishes in the sink at home.
Digital Detritus And The Existential Abyss
Ultimately, the tension is psychological. My obsessive need to document, archive and stash just plays out on the stage of Evernote.
Joan Didion has an excellent essay about (analog) notetaking that’s always stuck with me. The urge to keep is a classic mental struggle – not one of insufficient technology at all.
“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself”, Didion writes.
“I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder… I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be.”
There’s a central fallacy in these obsessive gestures: the earnest belief that we will wend our way back to these things and extract meaning from them.
But the notebook-keepers among us know the truth, though we choose to look away from it: these things are being saved for the saving’s sake alone.
In fact, I’m never even going to organize my hoard. I’m never going to straighten out my Evernote tags or my Gmail labels or all of those saved stories on Read It Later, Pocket or Instapaper. I am an absolutely abysmal digital gardener, just like I am a terrible real gardener. I can hardly remember to keep my cat alive in real life – and she has a robust built-in reminder system.
Perhaps I just need to slow down (this is what an Evernote acolyte would say, right?). Diligently tagging my virtual parallel life and filing it away in notebooks, funneling it into filters might make me saner – even happier! Or it might just turn me into a hopelessly OCD-afflicted automaton bent on making order out of so much digital chaos.
Oh wait, that happened already.
Fear: A Booming Business Model
Apps and tools that help us keep things often generate a Stockholm Syndrome-esque flavor of loyalty. The Evernotes and Flickrs of the world are evocative well beyond normal parameters. (Criticize one of these to an avid user and you’ll see what I mean.) They aren’t just apps – they’re where we put our memories.
They might be meaningless or fragmented and we’ll most likely never even bother to dredge them up at all, but there’s just something incredibly soothing about knowing that all the stuff we’ve hoarded is in there somewhere. And there’s something unsettling about being soothed by that.
Perhaps its a good thing I’ll never go looking for my stuff. My Pocket account is so clogged that facing that sea of unread stories feels like turning the doorknob to the hall closet you don’t dare open because you know three suitcases and a hockey stick will fall on your head.
Same goes for Evernote… and for Kippt, and Simplenote, and Google Drive, and my old Flickr albums and my Pinterest boards and ancient Blogger drafts.
Try, Try Again: Prying Open The Crypt
Still, I’m trying to find a shoe that fits. I’ve been tooling around in Springpad for the past month or so. It’s not the same kind of sprawling archive as Evernote, but at least I don’t dread opening it (yet).
If Evernote began to seem like a sarcophagus, Springpad feels like a living record. Now, instead of hoarding the desiccated remains of half-baked ideas and everything my eyeballs graze online, I’m trying to shake the compulsion to keep everything, instead curating a small batch of themed notebooks for work and play.
But I admit: I still harbor fantasies about Evernote. Making it work still feels like the sweetest dream of the seasoned cyberhoarder. For now I’ve abandoned it, but a battalion of active IFTTT triggers still fire away at my account. I can’t quite bring myself to turn them off.
The messy chronicle of my life piles up passively, megabyte by megabyte. And I guess if I ever need it, I know where to look.