Time to let go of social clutter.

(based on Karen Kingston’s Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, which is the richest, most helpful book on clutter, the origin and removal thereof, and which I need to read every year – more about her on spaceclearing.com)

Clutter pulls people down and keeps them stuck. After tripping over yet another box in my office, I know this to be true. I have never learned my lesson. I have cleared my clutter in a huge way at least thrice in my life. I backslid each time. This means I haven’t addressed the real issues. Now, much to my horror, I have taken my clutterholic ways to Facebook and Twitter, for Bingbots and Googlebots to cache and recache for redundancy. That means my clutter, previously restricted to the vicinity of my desk, will take over the cloud.

I have to let go of my social clutter.

In her  book (which is finally available on Kindle), Kingston identifies reasons for holding on to clutter, including “scroogeness (not letting go of anything until you have squeezed the last bit of usefulness out of it),” a belief that more is better (I don’t even want to count my bags), identity (we collect things in the hope that they tell us who we are), status (we collect things in the hope that they tell other people who we are), and keeping things “just in case.” The last one is why I have 704 friends on Facebook and 576 favorites on Twitter.

Why do we keep things “just in case?” Kingston says this stems from a scarcity mindset. We don’t trust the future to provide for us. (For the humanist who can’t stand to anthropomorphize “the future,” this can be stated as “We don’t trust ourselves to provide for ourselves in the future.”) We might be able to use that blue ballpen one day even if we 1) hate ballpens and 2) hate blue ink. Who knows, someone might come along and borrow it. Who knows, someone might come along who loves blue ballpens and who will like us because we have one even though we detest ballpens.

Who knows, right? The answer is, no one knows. In the meantime that blue ballpen is like a tiny sore that we don’t notice much but irks us because it’s there and it’s not helping us grow, create something awesome or help someone else right now.

On Facebook, that blue ballpen is a “friend.” I know I have accepted and sent friend requests not out of deep, real-life friendship, but because the person might be good to know, just in case. I have manipulated friend groups and privacy settings to simulate what the real life relationship level is, but really, that’s one more bit of clutter to manage, isn’t it? I feel guilty if I don’t accept a friend request from a work acquaintance, or someone from high school or grade school who hasn’t been in my life for decades, or from a stranger who might be someone who was introduced to me at an industry event whose name I don’t remember but whom I don’t want to offend, just in case. Isn’t that emotional clutter of the worst kind? I don’t want an audience on Facebook. I want friends.

The antithesis of clutter is “everything in its place.” If I want an audience, I have Twitter. But even there, I have clutter, otherwise known as “Favorites” and “Read Later.” I am so scared of missing something important (a piece of knowledge that I might need, just in case) that I star every tweet of the slightest interest, and follow a URL and end up yak shaving.

Kingston also enumerates the consequences of clutter, and these are my favorites:

Having clutter can keep you in the past.
Having clutter can cause extra cleaning.
Having clutter can distract you from what’s important.

Here are the social network equivalents.

Having social clutter can keep you in the past. Time is kind. The cloud is not. Time naturally blunts the corners and smooths the rough spots of our memories, to our collective human advantage – so we can all move on.  We move on from people for a reason. Today, we buy Japanese products with happiness. Fifty-five years ago, we would have killed ourselves first. Imagine if we had Facebook during the Second World War. Imagine if, today, we could call up videos of our grandparents suffering under the Japanese occupation as easily as a link to the trailer of Space Battleship Yamato, from within our Facebook profiles. Time present on a single line does not permit kindness. We forget and forgive so we can have a future.

Having social clutter can cause extra cleaning. How many times have we untagged ourselves, sighing, from for-sale posts, totally irrelevant videos, random notes about items we’re not interested in, photos in which our arms look too fat uploaded by acquaintances who didn’t care enough to crop them? I am tagged in 377 photos and until Facebook allows a mass untagger app, I have to click at least 5 times all around the screen to untag myself in one. I want to give up before I even begin. Oversharing is also clutter. Why did I upload all those videos again? Even I don’t know anymore.

Having social clutter can distract you from what’s important. In a stream, everything is important. All status messages come in the same font size. All images are resized to fit client specifications. All videos look like YouTube embeds. In the real world, everything is different. That’s how we assess importance. What one friend says is more relevant. The faster car is the more dangerous car. The louder sound is nearer. As we look at a stream, we become distracted by the trivial (oh look, Cthulhu sex toys!) and fritter away our attention (Must. Click. On. Star. Wars. Retro. Posters!). Attention is the mind’s currency. Once we’ve spent it, we can’t buy it back.

I refuse to schlep the clutter of one decade to the next. I know I might fail. But because I never learn, I am always willing to try. Sometime between today and 2011, I am deleting my Facebook account and opening a new one. If you’re a business contact or an industry acquaintance, I’ll see you on LinkedIn. If we have shared interests, I’ll see you on Twitter.  If you’re a good friend (physical or virtual), I’ll see you back on Facebook. If you were on my list or I was on your list “just in case,” then believe me, you won’t notice a difference at all.

I will also be unstarring, unsubscribing and unfollowing. I’ll star, subscribe, and follow again – but that will be in the future, when I need to, and not now, just in case.

Social networks need to stay in the now. That’s what makes them useful. We need to act on them in real time, or they lose their value and become clutter. Let’s enjoy the trip photos now, then delete them when everyone who went on the trip has clicked like. Let’s vent in a status message now, then delete it when we feel better. In social networks, as in life, it’s only when we trust that we can let go.