25 January 2021

What kind of digital hoarder are you? Study identifies 4 distinct types

How often do you clear out old photos on your phone or tidy up your email inbox? You just may be a digital hoarder, and researchers from Northumbria University have identified four distinct types.


In 2010 a BBC article told the story of a new, and increasingly popular, type of 21st century minimalist lifestyle. Innovations in digital technology allowed people to get rid of huge volumes of physical possessions. Books, photographs, CDs, DVDs, all could be easily replaced by digital counterparts and many were embracing this modern minimalism.


This digitization of one’s life was initially depicted as a radical kind of decluttering. Getting rid of all that stuff we accumulate and replacing it with a few small external hard drives. What a revolution. "Tidy house, tidy mind," as some would say.


Since then it has become even easier to accumulate digital content. The rise of cloud storage has removed the anxiety-inducing risk of a hard drive fail, shifting data storage into a sphere of abstraction (aka massive electricity-intensive server farms).


It is now easier than ever to amass enormous volumes of data with virtually no tangible physical footprint. Why not save all those random work emails from 2012? Sure, keep that batch of 5,000 e-books just in case you want to read one. How many meaningless photos have you accumulated after years of having a smartphone in the pocket, capable of taking disposable snaps instantly?


Is digital hoarding a clinical disorder?


A landmark case study published in 2015 described the first clinical case of digital hoarding. It was only a couple of years prior that hoarding itself was classified its own mental disorder separate from obsessive compulsive disorder, in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). But a team of Dutch psychiatrists argued digital hoarding should be characterized as its own unique subtype of hoarding.


“Digital hoarding is the accumulation of digital files to the point of loss of perspective, which eventually results in stress and disorganisation,” the researchers wrote in their 2015 case study. “Although digital hoarding does not interfere with cluttering of living spaces, it has an immense impact on daily life functioning.”


The specific case study cited was an extreme example of digital hoarding. A middle-aged man, previously diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), would spend his days taking hundreds and hundreds of digital photos. He spent hours each day organizing the photos across several digital hard drives.


“He never used or looked at the pictures he had saved, but was convinced that they would be of use in the future,” the researchers wrote. “He planned to merge pictures when new technologies would become available and thought some pictures would be suitable for future publication.”


Unlike conventional hoarding, which presents tangible problems such as interfering with physical spaces, digital hoarding is more difficult to detect. However, despite the abstract nature of digital hoarding, the team behind the 2015 case study suggested the behavior fits all the criteria assigned to hoarding as a mental disorder.


“Digital hoarding would fulfill the general DSM-5 criteria of hoarding disorder, because it involves a difficulty to discard due to a strong urge to save files because of perceived need or emotional attachment, an accumulation of files on hard drives and external drives, leading to ‘digital clutter’, loss of overview and disorganisation and significant distress and interference with daily functioning,” the researchers noted.


The four types of digital hoarding


Nick Neave, from Northumbria University, recognized the nascent mental disorder of digital hoarding several years ago and has worked to develop ways to clinically categorize the problem. In 2019 Neave and colleagues published a study surveying several hundred people’s digital hoarding behaviors.


The outcome of the research was a Digital Hoarding Questionnaire. This ostensibly offered clinicians a new tool to assess the impact of digital behaviors on psychological well-being.


An interesting finding arising out of the survey was the impact of digital hoarding in the workplace. The research found data hoarding in large organizations can particularly affect those prone to digital hoarding behaviors.

Neave’s most recent research, conducted with Northumbria University colleagues and published in 2020, leveraged the prominence of these behaviors in large workplaces to home in on the particular characteristics of excessive digital hoarding. Twenty subjects, all scoring high on the Digital Hoarding Questionnaire, were closely interviewed.


The goal of the study was to offer greater nuance in the way digital hoarding can be conceptualized. And to that end, the researchers categorized four distinct types of digital hoarder.


The Anxious Hoarder


This dimension of hoarding is underpinned by a sense that certain data needs to be kept "just in case." The fear of losing something that could be important or necessary at some point in the future is amplified in workplace environments.


The anxious hoarder described in the study essentially keeps almost every email or document they receive, regardless of its potential to be of use in the future. This accumulation of old data is suggested as giving the hoarder a sense of comfort and security.


“A lot of emails that I have kept, so, even stuff like confirming maternity leave, when I was on maternity leave, so it’s just like, anything to do with HR, I am always very keen to keep a record of and make sure it is in a folder somewhere. I mean, I will never need that email saying you are on maternity leave from month A to month B, it is just in case [..] I suppose it is the security of knowing that you have got it,” explains one digital hoarder surveyed in the study.


The Compliant Hoarder


Referred to as a "hoarder by instruction," this behavioral dimension is most specific to workplaces. In this instance the digital hoarding behavior is directed, either explicitly or implicitly, by organizational structures.

Compliant hoarders are less emotionally attached to digital content and more likely to delete the data when it is deemed unnecessary. This type of digital hoarding is less psychologically problematic for individuals, however, Neave suggests the negative consequences can be significant for organizations without clear data retention policies.


“First, storing thousands of files or emails is inefficient,” Neave writes in The Conversation. “Wasting large amounts of time looking for the right file can reduce productivity. Second, the more data is kept, the greater the risk that a cyberattack could lead to the loss or theft of information covered by data protection legislation.”


The Disengaged Hoarder


Here, digital hoarders are characterized by laziness or a general lack of organization. Data accumulates over time and without active management habits a disengaged hoarder can accidentally end up with a mess of digital clutter.


“I am just looking at mine and I am just realising what a complete mess it is in,” reports one disengaged hoarder in the study. “I have got all of these folders with particular, you know, projects and all this kind of stuff, and then I have got one that I have just called read, because I can’t decide what folder to put it in, and I have looked in the read and there is 3052 just in the read and what are they doing. You know, so, it is a complete shambles.”


Disengagement is noted as a key driver for many digital hoarders. It is not, however, a particularly problematic hoarding behavior… at least from a subjective psychological perspective with many disengaged hoarders caring little about their accumulated data.


The Collector


Disagreements over where the line is between collecting and hoarding are not new. For decades clinicians have debated the differences between the two behaviors.

One general distinction between healthy collecting and unhealthy hoarding has often been the behavior’s impact on physical space. Collections are often well-organized and have their own dedicated space within a home. Whereas hoarders often have lots of disorganized accumulated stuff filling up all parts of a living environment.


The line between collecting and hoarding becomes exceptionally blurry in regards to digital content. Many of the negative dimensions of hoarding disappear when digital content is introduced.


Neave and colleagues suggest categorizing "collectors" as a subset of digital hoarders is a particularly novel finding in their study. A number of subjects scoring highly on the Digital Hoarding Questionnaire did not fit neatly into the other three categories, yet still presented with behavior that qualified as hoarding.


Collectors are systematic about how they categorize and collate material, and they take pride in how ordered their large library of content is.


If it doesn’t spark digital joy then maybe it should go in the virtual bin

In a workplace context this particular category of hoarder stands apart from a compliant hoarder insofar at the collecting behavior is not specifically directed by an organization. Collectors also feel a degree of ownership over their digital content, even when that data is not explicitly theirs (such as work emails).

“Where collection was an important motivation, there were few if any concerns about the amount of digital data that was being stored,” the researchers note in the study. “This data was seen as valuable to participants now or would be valuable to them in the future. Here, the collection dimension differs from the anxiety dimension in which data was kept just in case but regardless of its perceived value.”


So what's the harm?


Ultimately, digital hoarding is an incredibly new phenomenon. Physical hoarding is a well-studied behavior manifesting in anxiety, insecurity and a host of other negative emotions. Neave suggests it is too soon to know whether the negatives we associate with physical hoarding are transferable to digital hoarding.


“We don’t yet know enough about digital hoarding to see whether similar difficulties apply, or whether existing coping strategies will work in the digital world, too,” Neave writes in The Conversation. “But we have found that asking people how many files they think they have often surprises and alarms them, forcing them to reflect on their digital accumulation and storing behaviours.”


In the future he suggests it will be important for workplaces to engender digital decluttering behaviors helping maintain both employee mental health and organizational data security. And maybe next time you are trying to clear up space on a laptop or smartphone at home you should consider those same principles of digital decluttering. If it doesn’t spark digital joy then maybe it should go in the virtual bin.


The study was published in the journal Interacting With Computers.


By Rich Haridy, January 24, 2021


Source: New Atlas