We may never know why George Sweeten, Elizabeth Sillence, and Nick Neave embarked on their research at Northumbria University. It may have been the sight of their mailboxes maxing, or missing a critical message in the chaos.
Whatever the case, they decided to investigate “the over-accumulation of digital materials such as emails, photographs, files and software” which they felt had not received the necessary attention in literature.
The Source of the Information Sweeten, Sillence, and Neave Used
The team gathered information from 24 females and 21 males aged 20 to 52. It asked them about their digital hoarding behaviours, their underlying motivations and the potential negative consequences.
They hoped to learn how these applied to personal and work-related information. In the process, they discovered three underlying themes that reminded them of physical hoarding:
# Over-accumulation of digital materials
# Difficulties in deleting digital data
# Anxiety arising from these pressure points
There were differences between personal and work-based information, but the overall trends were the same.
Previous Related Research Considered
The team noted evidence that physical hoarders` tend to anthropomorphize their possessions. Put differently, they attribute quasi-human characteristics / behaviour to them. They also resist efforts by others to intervene in their hoarding.
Sweeten, Sillence, and Neave believed people were also likely to develop deep attachments for certain digital materials, as the media became more ingrained in their lives. They wanted to learn more about similarities between this, and physical hoarding.
Research into online forums, blogs and other media revealed that digital hoarding is an increasing phenomenon. However, they found little scientific research into “…the accumulation of digital files to the point of loss of perspective, which eventually results in stress and disorganisation”.
Moreover, the potential is open-ended because one can store as much digital information on servers and clouds as one likes.
The Investigative Procedure Adopted.
Sweeten, Sillence, and Neave asked their subjects open-ended questions online. These questions related to web browser behaviour, file management practices, and “overall attitudes towards personal digital management behaviour and its implications“.
They asked their subjects to answer their questions as broadly as possible. They also encouraged them to indicate whether they were thinking of personal or work-based data as they wrote. The results of their research were as follows.
What the Northumbria University Researchers Learned
The barriers to deleting digital information are (1) keeping data for the future just in case; (2) keeping data as evidence; (3) lazy / time consuming; (4) emotional attachment to data; (5) not my server / not my problem.
# Keeping data for the future was driven by a concern it might have residual value. Moreover, the alternative was time-consuming and deciding what to keep was difficult
# However, the reasons for keeping data as evidence were more specific and calculated. Motives included ‘proof I was asked’ and ‘proof I did as requested’
# Excuses of laziness and time constraints boiled down to having pressing / perceived more important tasks. There was also a sense of ‘having left it too long’.
# Emotional attachment to data was more complex to unravel. Deleting images was a little like deleting a bit of me. The subjects regarded emails as memories to keep.
# Finally, the sense of having unlimited data storage space provided a comfortable excuse. Nobody mentioned the cost of energy and the impact on global warming.
Sweeten, Sillence, and Neave concluded digital hoarding occurs in both personal and work environments. It shares “some key similarities with physical hoarding behaviours in relation to accumulation, difficult discarding and emotional distress”.
However, “the phenomenon also exhibits interesting standalone features. The barriers to deleting digital data, particularly in workplace settings warrant further investigation.”