Really Cleaning Up Your Digital Crap

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a technology junky. It’s rare that the release of a new app, social network or device isn’t met by an explosion of dopamine-infused joy. However, last year things started to feel different. Perhaps it was the voice of Patrick Rhone and the idea of Enough in the back of my head, or perhaps I’d just overdone it to the point where I truly have had enough, but for the first time the tools started to feel like a burden rather than an aid.

In a rare moment of honesty (technology can be a bit of a blind spot for me), I found I had more devices than I use, more emails than I can manage, more networks than I enjoy and more information than I can process coming my way.

It wasn’t that I was enjoying technology less. In fact, much of my workflow feels more aligned than ever before, but I started to feel the bloat. In late November, I setup a little project for myself (one that’s still a work in progress) and decided to do something about it, starting with the greatest offender of all…

Email Unsubscribing

I don’t know when it happened, but at some point, I grew numb to the daily task of deleting spam or email newsletters that I signed up for and never read. Unsubscribing on the whole is a pain in the ass and it always seemed faster to just swipe and delete. So swipe and delete I did. Every day. Swipe. Delete. Swipe. Delete. It became second nature. It also made me dread going into my inbox knowing that I’d have to do my little routine to clean out the over 70% worth of garbage.

Now I have no problem deleting an unnecessary email, but the daily habit made me feel as if there was little value to even having an email account (spoiler alert: there is). At first, I tried a service like Unroll.me which attempts to eliminate and consolidate much of this for you, but it wasn’t a fit. I didn’t want to make my unneeded emails better, I wanted them gone. So I decided to dedicate a month to cleaning out the crap. Rather than the daily routine of swiping and deleting, I found the often elusive unsubscribe buttons, dealt with the often annoying unsubscribe process and chipped away at all of the nonsense that I had allowed into my life. There’s still the occasional spam, or a subscription that I’ve yet to eliminate, but my daily email count is down by about 60% and the signal to noise ratio has improved drastically. It also doesn’t make me dread going into my inbox, something which I’m certain was coming off in the messages I did want to send.

Social Cleanup

I used to love Facebook, I used to love Twitter. I got a tremendous amount out of both services and they really helped me understand just how passionate I am about technology and the way we communicate. But, and this is entirely my own fault, I way overdid it. On Facebook, I was far too liberal with who I accepted as a “Friend” and what businesses I “Liked.” On Twitter, I played the social media douche bag game of trying to build up a following rather than focusing on making genuine connections and ended up with a Twitter Stream that was almost entirely noise I didn’t care about. When I opened Facebook, I couldn’t find an update I cared about, and when I opened Twitter, I had to use a tool like a list just to cut through all of the crap.

It wasn’t until I got a do over with App.net that I realized two things: I still essentially love what I can get from those types of networks and that the problem was entirely fixable. I was tempted to burn many of my social profiles down and start again, but I didn’t like the idea of losing all of my digital records (I can’t tell you how much I owe Facebook as a photo service after our robbery last year). I decided to attack this on two fronts, realigning the tools I still want to use and eliminating those I don’t.

Facebook First

I started with Facebook and used a paid Chrome extension called Ultimate Friend Remover Pro and aggressively cut down on the amount of friends I follow (I tried doing this in app, but Facebook makes it very difficult to bulk unfriend or unlike). I cut approximately two thirds of my friends (essentially anyone I did not care if I ever saw again) and immediately saw the difference. While I still needed to clean out a hell of a lot of “liked” Pages, the updates were from people I actually cared about. On days where nothing major is going on, it’s nice to check in with the friends I know more from my real life than my online world. (On the days things are actually happening in the world, please, for the love of all that is holy, stay away from Facebook!)

Twitter Next

Twitter is a strange one. I had been using a list to only see what I wanted of Twitter and ignored the rest. In theory, I really didn’t need to do anything to clean this up, but it was bothering me. It may have been shame from the time spent chasing follower count, but I really just wanted to align Twitter with my actual usage. I didn’t want to count on a list to help me ignore the 4000+ people I was “Following.” ManageFlitter gave me a tool that allowed me to quickly eliminate those I was no longer interested in following, while white listing those I still wanted to hear from.

More Social Clutter

From there it was a matter of looking at the Apps I have on my phone and the credentials I had in my 1Password account and determining what I wanted to do. I’m still not looking to part with services like Instagram, but Path, as much as I love the app, is just another thing that I do not need in my life. I haven’t been as aggressive as I’d like with these other social apps, and I will likely need to do another pass through, but there’s a certain pleasure in eliminating something that you know you’ll never use again.

RSS Pruning

When it comes to how I go about learning and the way I consume information, RSS or Really Simple Syndication (you can read more on how I use RSS here) plays a major role. When a new interest arises or a new voice comes along that interests me, I add the feed from their website into my Google Reader and I automatically receive any new content. Every day I scan through my feeds and pull the posts that interest me most into Instapaper to read.

As my interests have shifted and certain sites have drastically increased the frequency with which they post, there was more excess to consider than I would have liked. I don’t mind dismissing things, but I don’t have the time to dismiss everything. With this in mind, I took a similar approach to the one I used with Facebook and just aggressively cut down my feeds. Now when I go in, my feeds do a far better job of reflecting my interests and make it far easier to find the work that I want to read most.

The Benefits of Cleaning Up Your Crap

Feeling weighed down by the very technology that’s meant to help push you forward can be frustrating. There’s often a temptation to “declare bankruptcy” and burn your email, your social networks or your feeds down. Believe me, I was tempted to do all three myself. Yet as you begin to clean out your email, you realize there are messages that you would not want to miss in your frustration. As you reduce the size of your social network following (and the number of networks you use), you can see only what you want about those who matter to you most. As you reduce your feeds, you can make it easier for the stories that help you grow (or just amuse the hell out of you) to rise to the top.

There’s also the unintended benefit of seeing how my tastes have changed. I’ve had the same email address for over a decade, I’ve been on Facebook for five or six years and have been using RSS daily for the past three years. This exercise has helped me get a better sense of where my overall focus is. It’s shown me what I’m no longer paying attention to, as well as what I still may be paying too much attention to. It’s helped me identify friendships that I’ve let lapse as well as recognize friendships that have grown.

It’s also served as a great reminder that no matter how tempted I may get in a moment of frustration to get rid of it all, the technology plays a large and positive role in my life. A role that’s far more enjoyable since I took the time to be far more intentional about the way I use it.

9 Responses to Really Cleaning Up Your Digital Crap

  1. Ohhh. I’ve been looking for something like Ultimate Friend Remover Pro. Thank you! I’m going to use that. I’ve been using the birthday tact this year – if it’s their birthday and I can’t write a customized and personal note because I don’t know them well enough or haven’t seen them in 20 years, I unfriend them. That’s a seriously laborious process.

    On the email, I started doing that in November and it’s made a big difference EXCEPT I’ve noticed I’m on some crap lists now, which means I probably unsubscribed unknowingly to a phishing email list. I mean, yesterday I got a manufacturing newsletter in Spanish.

    • Wish UFRP also did pages, but it will make a serious dent. You’ll be amazed how much more you enjoy FB when you do it. Forgot what it was like to enjoy it for a while.

      As for the email, I was very generous for about three months or so with the unsubscribing. I’ve become far more willing to hit the spam button now for emails like that.

  2. I have been doing something similar as well. Manually unsubscribing although the most time consuming seemed to be more effective for me. I also extended this to some of the apps I use on OSX and iOS – I was starting to feel overwhelmed picking one of the 17 text editors. I am trying to be a little more discerning on what makes it through the testing phase and into the workflow phase.

  3. Funny I like to say I can help brands break through the clutter because I observe what gets through to me. But really hard. You really have to shine somehow. I actually started a new email address the one you know just for personal correspondence. My old one is just from all those emails from brands and causes and news. I still use it because sometimes I have to use an email to sign up for something. And I usually delete a page at a time.

    Great stuff all around my friend. I promise not to tweet you until you respond! lol

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