After 20 years in our house we decided recently it was time to declutter. Clean out. Pare down. We started yesterday in my home office and quickly realized that "cleaning out" was far too polite an expression.

It's an archaeological dig. (At left, uncovering the Pyramids.)

Found the original copy of my college thesis

I was down in the basement rooting through an old file cabinet. I found the original copy of my undergraduate thesis for Harvard. It's not in digital form so I decided to save the bound copy. I've always been rather proud of it: A Comparison of the Poetry of St├ęphane Mallarme and the Paintings of Pablo Picasso. I kid you not.

A complete documentation of my children's childhood

Moving on... I found that I took motherhood *very* seriously. I have three children and for years I maintained a file for each of them for every single year of their lives, well into college. During the early years, of course, the files contain those awkward drawings and misspelled stories you can't part with. Their report cards. The slip from the pediatrician with their height and weight. And so on.

But I'm severing the umbilical cord(s). I'm shipping boxes of files to each child. Let them have fun on a rainy afternoon sifting through their childhood. I'm movin' on...

Luckily, client files also live on the computer

And more... today I tackled client files going back almost a decade. I threw out most of the paper folders because I have (to my immense relief) digital folders on my old computer dated neatly, 2000, 2001, 2002, etc. Yes, I've also put them on a back-up drive.

Oh and I forgot to mention newspaper articles - crammed into bulging folders - that I wrote in the 1980s and early 90s for The Atlanta Constitution, Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau and Roll Call. I'm tossing most of those out but keeping a few yellowed clips for old times sake (none of the articles seem to be online, as far as I can tell).

Declutter your office and your brain... let the clutter live on the Web

Thanks for listening. Now let me make this little brain dump relevant to corporate blogging and social media.

I read a great article in Wired several years back that pretty well sums it up: We Are the Web. I highly recommend printing it out and reading if you didn't catch it in August 2005. It starts out with Netscape's IPO in 1995 and does a year-by-year analysis of the Web up until 2005, calling it "10 years that changed the world" and "a decade of genius and madness."

There is also a side-bar on the birth of Google, of course, written by John Battelle.

Author Kevin Kelly refers to the Web as the Machine. The Machine will do a lot of the work for us, he posits. It may do some original thinking; that remains to be seen. But it will certainly do almost all the remembering and cataloguing and keeping track of stuff. As he puts it:

A riff from Kevin Kelly's article on how the Machine (aka the Web) will become our memory...

The human brain has no department full of programming cells that configure the mind. Rather, brain cells program themselves simply by being used. Likewise, our questions program the Machine to answer questions. We think we are merely wasting time when we surf mindlessly or blog an item, but each time we click a link we strengthen a node somewhere in the Web OS, thereby programming the Machine by using it.

What will most surprise us is how dependent we will be on what the Machine knows - about us and about what we want to know. We already find it easier to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves [my italics]. The more we teach this megacomputer, the more it will assume responsibility for our knowing. It will become our memory. Then it will become our identity. In 2015 many people, when divorced from the Machine, won't feel like themselves - as if they'd had a lobotomy.

-- from We Are the Web, Wired (August 2005)

Anyway, I find this comforting to a degree. Also a little scarey and Big Brotherish. But as far as feeling free to throw out all that "stuff" -- phew, I couldn't be doing it at a better time. And now for the closets... the endless T-shirts, mismatched socks, prom dresses that will never be worn again, etc.*

The business corollary... if you're worrying about where to put all those bits and pieces of information you run across that you might use on a company or organizational blog or stats you need to back up an assertion or images to illustrate a blog entry, no need to fret. Whatever it is you need, it's stored on the Web somewhere. And you can just leave it there til you really need it.

Your thoughts? Your New Year's Resolutions??

* If I'm not online much for the next week or so, it's because I'm offline and thigh deep in heavy-duty black trash bags.

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Previous Comments

Michael J. Fitzgerald, CPA/PFS, CFP, MST said on January 10, 2008 at 03:23 PM

I really enjoy your work, I am glad someone likes to talk about this type of media.

Best of Luck,

==============================

Michael J. Fitzgerald, CPA/PFS, CFP, MST

100% Retirement Income Replacement Specialist

http://www.fitzfp-llc.com

Mark L Johnson, Freelance Writer said on January 10, 2008 at 04:46 PM

Your old thesis sounds interesting. I’d read it. Will you scan/OCR it and post?

Debbie Weil said on January 10, 2008 at 05:08 PM

Mark,

I’m flabbergasted—wow, you’ve made my day. Well I’m not sure my thesis is that good though I did get a “magna” on it. Hmmm… do I have the bandwidth to scan it? I think probably not… but you’re very kind to ask.

Kevin said on January 10, 2008 at 08:10 PM

Debbie,

A while back my parents gave me some of the assorted memorabilia they’d saved from my childhood. Much like you, they assumed it was better in my hands than theirs.

I did indeed enjoy the “rainy afternoon” of looking through it. As I looked through everything, though, there was something very melancholy about the fact that they’d given it to me in the first place.

I think it was while I looked through some old school pictures that I realized that we are more than the sum of our own memories. We are also the sum of other people’s memories of us. Being suddenly confronted with the fact that those other people’s memories have a shelf life is perhaps the most stark recognition of the truth of mortality for a child (and, of course, we are all children).

And then I saw an old report card that made me laugh, and I was glad that I now had it in my possession, to file away, for what future use if any I have no idea.

Thanks for your post and the opportunity to remember a moment I had almost forgotten. Happy new year.

Dad said on January 11, 2008 at 07:16 AM

Great stuff - may be even a great idea that could be commercialized—there must be several hundred people a day doing more or less what you are doing - a place to go to get ideas, comfort, inspiration etc would be attractive to a lot of people AND advertisers would love to get their oar in - storage, copying, passing along, new ways to file/store things?? just an idea Dad

Debbie Weil said on January 11, 2008 at 10:10 AM

Hey Dad, thanks! Wow… the first ever comment on my blog from my dad. Let me point out that he’s 76, young at heart and very cool. Also a good writer… and should have his own blog. Great idea re thebigcleanout.com

Debbie Weil said on January 11, 2008 at 10:13 AM

Kevin,

Don’t misunderstand… my memories of everything about my children has no shelf life. The memories are indelible. And of course I’m not really letting them (the kids or the memories) go. It’s hard to cut the umbilical cord, even when your children are adults. Like every other baby boomer, I’m way too attached to my kids. I suspect that they like it, however, when I say I’m letting go.  :)

chris said on January 18, 2008 at 04:17 AM

Hello Deb—

Do all of us writer types do this end-of-year clean out thing?

One tip from a fellow former reporter and paper-saver: Scan those old articles, making a JPEG file of them that you can then neatly, digitally file. Toss the paper and you’ve gained lineal feet in your office.  It’s a bit time consuming—the scanning part—but I think well worth it, for those things you really might want to refer to in the future.

Scanning those old t-shirts though? I guess that wouldn’t work would it?

Warren Whitlock said on February 8, 2008 at 01:44 AM

Imagine the dig we’d have to do if we had to sort through all the digital suff we have!

The future will have this all more expendable so that each item we do keep will be more precious.

People ask ma about books.. “Will they go away?”

I point to Star Trek.. where there are very few piece of stuff… When Captain Kirk goes to his quarters to relax, he pulls out two prize possesions.. his reading glasses and a copy of “Moby Dick”

I think those are the only two items on the ship that aren’t from the replicator.


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