The Awful Nightmare of Cluttered Desktops and the Hoarders Who Never Delete Anything

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Photo: Byron Hulcher

A few days ago, Twitter user @AidaSaidSo posted a screenshot of her friend Carley’s desktop. You can see it below, although I must warn you, it is very graphic.

If you don’t recognize it — and why would you, in that state — that’s Carley’s macOS desktop, buried under pillars of screenshots, downloads, and other miscellaneous files. If you’re one kind of person, this doesn’t bother you. But if you’re another kind of person, this image is a close visual equivalent to nails on a chalkboard.

It’s easy to understand how desktops get so cluttered. If you want to save an image from your browser, you can drag it to the desktop. If you take a screenshot on macOS, it is automatically saved to the desktop. Carley’s desktop is, almost literally, an enormous pile of files and artifacts that have built up in much the same way that a hoarder might keep old newspapers and magazines, even after they’ve served their purpose.

For people like me, this type of desktop is a nightmare, much in the same way an email inbox with tens of thousands of unread emails is triggering. My desktop philosophy is one of mercenary cleanliness. If a file is on the desktop, it is in use or I anticipate using it soon. After a certain amount of time, if I realize I don’t need immediate access to the file, I archive it or trash it (almost always the latter). I see little point in saving frivolous files. Maybe most importantly, it’s so easy to be tidy on a computer — why wouldn’t you keep things cleaned up?

But for many people — people like Carley — the cluttered desktop is a way of life. I finally decided to confront my fears head on and ask people with hoarder desktops to explain what the heck is going on. Why don’t they delete anything? And how do they deal?

“The secret is never opening your desktop except in Finder,” New York developer Byron Hulcher explained. Multiple desktop hoarders explained that they don’t actually use their desktop as an interface. File-browsing programs like Finder and Explorer can sort chronologically, so it’s easy to turn an utter mess into an ordered list.

To a large extent, this is a by-product of new technological developments. For Complex music editor Brendan Klinkenberg, who passed along a ghastly screenshot of his own desktop, the buildup is a result of a cloud-based workflow. “It just doesn’t bother me enough to actually do anything about it. It’s aesthetically unpleasant, but doesn’t really affect my daily life,” he said. “My work is done almost entirely in my browser, so I’m more concerned with an overabundance of tabs than the files littering my desktop.”

“I used to be fastidious about organizing my laptop, but since later-generation laptops have so much space, I do all my writing in Google Docs, and my music-listening has moved to streaming; it’s just no longer as much of a concern.” Organizing and culling one’s files used to be a matter of managing limited storage space, but the declining cost of digital storage options has made digital pack-ratting much more justifiable.

It turns out that the reason for these desktops is mostly Occam’s razor. Storage space is cheap and some user habits avoid the desktop as an interface entirely. A horrific desktop shouldn’t reflect on how users navigate the other parts of their technological lives.

Of course, hoarders still feel some pressure to stay neat. Inverse editor James Grebey sent along this chilling anecdote: “One time, when I had probably upwards of 1,500 files on my desktop, I did a trick where I selected half of them, and dragged them on top of the other half of files. Then I did this again, and again, and again, until 1,500 files were stacked completely on top of one another, making them take up about as much space as a postage stamp. ‘There,’ I told my horrified friends. ‘I cleaned my desktop.’” The next day, his computer exploded the pile across his desktop upon exiting sleep mode.

The Hoarders Who Never Clean Their Nightmare Desktops