Separation Anxiety in the Digital Age

Are we virtual hoarders?

I am nearly certain that, if there were such a show, I would be starring in it.

Social networking sites, email accounts & blogs have become the new under-the-bed shoebox.  As we become increasingly reliant on our online existence, it is only natural that we also form a growing attachment to things that exist online.  Everyone has felt that pang of loss when your computer crashes, taking all your photos and class notes with it, but how will we feel the day Facebook is gone?  What effect will it have on us to delete old emails or Facebook albums?

I predict nothing short of the pangs of regret and longing felt by those hoarders as the cluttered contents of their living rooms, garages, basements and attics are purged…with perhaps the added benefit of relief and closure.

Last week, I decided to block all of my Facebook albums (barring three mostly featuring my dog as a puppy), tagged photos, and videos from everyone but my closest friends.

(the author’s Facebook photo pages, before & after the purge)

While this had the ultimate effect of cleaning up my digital footprint and online persona, especially since you can’t always control what other people post online about you, it also blocked off a part of myself that I had displayed online for the past five years.  Facebook made the decision earlier this year to reduce the wall-to-wall feature to a certain number of posts, essentially deleting all ‘ancient’ correspondence with our friends online.

Did we have a right, as users of this social networking site, to keep our content safe?  Do we have a responsibility to keep this kind of content up for others who may have deep-seated interest in it?  Should I have kept up all my albums, numerous from my years as my friend group’s resident paparazzi, so that my friends could maintain their own online identity and digital attachment to them?  I am certain that, once people realize the albums are gone, the pleas to have them return will be as vehement as those from image-savers asking for certain photos to be taken down.  A housemate of mine had a similar experience when a former housemate ‘defriended’ her, a casualty of which was all photos taken of her from second and third year.  While my housemate was originally a bit infuriated, she’s come to terms with the fact that the photos were probably not the most flattering and do not show her as she’d like to be seen professionally.  We are at a point, as millennials entering the workforce, that we must strike a careful balance between digital attachment and our online professional identity.

While it may make sense to keep old content others may have a vested interest in, what about content that has become inherently personal?  We routinely delete mundane emails, but what about those that we keep for sentimental reasons?  I no longer use my Hotmail account to receive messages, but I will admit that I keep it up and running because it houses folders full of emails from old beaus and friends that are no longer as close.  While it’s great to have these memories, I can’t help but feel that my online life is ‘cluttered’ because of their existence.  It would be great to finally streamline and have only two email accounts (personal & professional).

With regards to blogging and online creative content, I haven’t taken down my old Xanga account.  Even though it contains ridiculous amounts of embarrassing, teenage angst-y content, I consider it a sort of online diary, a snapshot of my life in high school.  Someday, I think I’d like to look back and laugh on those photos from ex boyfriend’s proms and those thinly veiled references to my crush of the moment, followed up by messages in solidarity from my girlfriends.  But, really, do I want everyone to be able to look back on those often-awkward memories?

(The author’s highschool Xanga, with identifying details removed to protect the innocent)

As we are forced to censor our online selves, for the sake of our professional relationships and opportunities, as well as for closure, what stays and what goes?  Dealing with digital attachment will become necessary as our inboxes fill up and we trade our fan-girl (backstreetgirl16) Hotmail accounts for more professional handles.  My advice?  Keep everything, but keep it close.  Blocking off your Facebook albums and making your old Xanga private is a great way to keep the memories but prevent them from hurting your professional life.  And those emails from exes?  Do what I plan to do – print them off, stuff them in an envelope, and file them away in that shoebox full of unrequited love under your bed.  That’s where they belong, after all.