We're all communication hoarders

In April of 2004, Google announced that its Gmail product would give users 1 gigabyte of free storage. At the time, Hotmail offered users 2 megabytes and Yahoo offered 4 megabytes. I'm guessing I initially accessed my invite via PINE, and found the idea of using a full gig of storage for email to be crazy. Unsure what I'd ever do with all that space, I initially used it as a remote backup for my thesis.[1]

Ten years later, I have nearly 12 gigs of saved email - and I delete quite a lot. Like a family in a too large home, I hold on to messages I'll never need again for two reasons: 1) the cognitive energy to decide to destroy something forever is greater than the energy needed to put it out of sight for the time being and 2) Gmail's UX actively pushes me to archive rather than to delete. This principle extends across nearly all the communication mediums with which I interact. It is more difficult to delete pictures than to upgrade storage, more difficult to delete texts rather than keep them, and to accept social connections than deny them. In each case, my desire to save against the future wins out against the knowledge that, in all likelihood, the vast majority of what I save will never be useful to me.

This is a strange place in which to find myself. I don't like keeping extraneous items around. To be sure, part of that is a function of living in a NYC apartment with little room to spare. As opposed to my apartment, though, I can assume that my storage space is effectively infinite. Yahoo already offers infinite storage to its mail customers, and it's likely that the other players will follow suit over time. This makes sense when you consider two factors. First: how cheap storage space has actually become.[2]

Second: the data contained in my communication is more valuable to my email provider than what I'd pay for the space.[3] It is unsurprising that I'm given an ever larger shoebox to fill. With no obvious cost to keeping everything around, that's exactly what I start to do.

And that leads to a paradox. The more of my communication I keep, the less each piece means to me. It feels like I'm losing something as a result, even as I gain a trove with massive potential meaning. My wife's grandfather was in Paris during WWII with the US Army. In the two years he was away, his wife had their first child - an event he only discovered weeks later via mail. The letters they wrote one another are unbelievable historical artifacts that shape their and our understanding of them and the world.[4] Of all the things they could have saved throughout 73 years of marriage (and counting), they made the conscious decision to save these items. That decision is a key part of how we know their importance.

My kids and grandkids won't have the experience of reading letters that my wife and I have saved in the same way, because we save everything by default. It's entirely possible they'll have nothing since my email account will most likely be locked when I die. That doesn't mean that all this communication I generate has no value or meaning. It is hugely valuable, in aggregate, to Google and Apple and Facebook. They'll continue to have access to my information long after I die, and it will continue to feed their algorithms.

I don't properly know what I'm losing by gaining so many individual pieces of communication. I do know, however, that the pace at which we communicate continues to accelerate, and that the forms through which we communicate continue to evolve.[5] The ways that expanding body of communication gets mined for information are proliferating at the same pace, but so far, they're almost entirely geared towards the companies that make money off our data.

I think that leaves something on the table. There's a class of product yet to be successfully created that can sift through all of my communication, across all platforms, that finds what is actually meaningful. I don't just want the first message that said "I love you" to my wife, I want the letter or email that led to that conversation. I want to be able to find the text which, on the surface, was meaningless, but in another time I would have set aside as an important life marker. While I can manipulate my inbox search to find some of these things, I can't really find the meaningful things. Maybe Google already does this to serve me ads, but that doesn't really help me.

Then again, maybe I'm thinking about communication all wrong. Maybe it should only have meaning in the instant it is made because that's a better fit for our brains. Or maybe we haven't figured it out yet. That feels more accurate to me, and I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next.


[1] Pretty sure I wasn't thinking of "cloud storage" at the time.

[2] Chart courtesy of ZDNent. "Thailand Hard Drive Crisis" is my new favorite chart annotation.

[3] I've talked about this cost/persona data trade off before: http://www.aaronkharris.com/tanstaafl

[4] We're lucky enough to still have Pops and Grandma Lil telling us stories. Grandma Lil also still has some of the perfume Pops bought her with bartered champagne and cigarettes.

[5] I recall being in Scotland in 2005 and being confused at the popularity of texting. It seemed so strange and foreign at the time. Considering the average American 18-24 was sending 3200 texts a month in 2011, I think I got that one really wrong.