“Your Google alert on Paris Hilton just went off,” my boyfriend recently sneered at me, handing me my iPhone with disgust.
His reaction wasn’t so much about my following a star whose gossip currency has long since depreciated. He would have had the same reaction if the alert had been for “Carrie Brownstein,” “porn star,” “schadenfreude,” or “frosting”—all of which I have alerts for, along with 9,995 others. I would have even more, but Google only allows users a maximum of 10,000 alerts. No topic is too big (sex), too small (Serenity Prayer), or too odd (high fructose corn syrup) to pique my interest.
His repulsion was centered around the fact that in any given hour, I will likely receive at least a handful of such emails, which light up my phone in a way that would make a casual bystander think I’m popular. I’m not, but my inbox certainly is. In the last hour, from 9 to 10pm on a Thursday evening, I’ve received 26 alerts. I’ve learned such random factoids as: There’s a Bob’s Burgers-themed animated Sleater-Kinney video, Kelly Brook’s cleavage was “hard to miss,” and Virgin America had a good fourth quarter. None of them were of any particular urgency or relevance to my life (though the video amused me), but I still welcomed the information, because I don’t believe one can ever possess, in a literal sense, “too much” information.
From my boyfriend’s point of view, I should keep the flow of information entering my life minimal, looking things up on a strictly need-to-know basis. He’d probably say digital clutter is just as dangerous as the actual clutter I, as a hoarder, have trouble parting with. For me, though, they are worlds apart. These alerts aren’t taking up space in the same way as my old magazines, whose stacks get so high after a few months they topple off my end table. Some would equate having over 800,000 unread messages in my inbox—approximately three-quarters of which are Google alerts—with those staggering stacks of periodicals, but to me, they are completely different. The alerts can be easily bypassed simply by relegating them to their own folder. As long as I have a data plan to store them, I’m game. I’d rather be proactive and prepared if I should want to know everything there is to know about, say, 2004’s most infamous hotel heiress. If I don’t want to look at all the alerts that come in, I just scroll past them and save them for when they might be useful.
My inbox will never be bored—and by extension, neither will I.
Yet many experts side with my boyfriend, arguing that digital clutter—even though it seems to exist out there “in the cloud,” far away from our everyday reality—still weighs down our minds. The decluttering evangelist pair who go by the name the Minimalists claim that “digital clutter can still be a significant problem,” even if it’s less dire than a physical mess. At the Daily Beast, self-proclaimed digital hoarder Lizzie Crocker quotes Linda Samuels, president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, who told her, “When there’s a compulsion to collect and be the keeper of information, the problem lies in managing that information, which takes up so much time in your daily life that you neglect other responsibilities.”
Dominic Basulto, innovation blogger for the Washington Post, goes one step further in his crusade against digital hoarding, arguing that it “may be contributing to your ‘information obesity,’” because hanging on to all this data “makes it harder to find the digital content that you really need to find later.” This is the most compelling argument against how I operate, but it still won’t sway me. I just need to ensure I make anything I save easily findable, whether by starring it or keeping it in a separate “Research” folder. As long as I’m still able to easily track down the article I remember reading two years ago with a few choice search terms in my Gmail account, I’m satisfied.
My inbox will never be bored—and by extension, neither will I. I’ve made certain of this by setting a Google news alert on pretty much any subject or person who has ever piqued my interest for five seconds or more.
Not all of my alerts are fluffy. I started my first one on my name around the time I became a sex columnist for the Village Voice in 2004. I followed that with titles for my columns, then topics I was interested in. When I posted daily at the cupcake blog I founded, I created dozens of alerts for every variation of the dessert I could think of—from “Valentine’s Day cupcakes” to “Magnolia Bakery.” From there, I moved on to friends’ names, then anything that I imagined my future self would want to know about, from frozen yogurt to sadomasochism. I’m not sure exactly when the alerts became one more piece of mail my eyeballs tend to simply scroll over, like all the newsletters I receive each day, but at some point, they became so voluminous I moved them to their own separate section so they wouldn’t overtake my general inbox.
Some people connect with strangers via apps or games, but I feast on media.
That system works well for me, because I know they’re there when I want them, most often in the wee hours of the night, when either I’m fighting off sleep but want a few more minutes with my laptop or insomnia has struck and I want to feel connected. Some people connect with strangers via apps or games, but I feast on media. Staying in the know via online sources helps supplement my general disregard for TV news. It enables me to catch up on the issues that interest me on my own time and has the potential to lead me to the like-minded.
Maybe I shouldn’t call it “news,” though; for the most part, none of the information I harvest from my alerts is vital to my everyday life. Rather, they are tidbits I wouldn’t find otherwise. By selecting Google’s most inclusive options of “as-it-happens” and “all results,” I’ve tailored my inbox to make sure I never have news FOMO (fear of missing out). Instead, I gather all the latest writing about a given subject, and I leave it alone, knowing it will be waiting for me if I ever truly want to know the daily ups and downs of, for instance, eating contests.
As of this moment, the Internet is talking about The Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams’ decision not to take over the reins of the popular program after host Jon Stewart retires; Williams tweeted that she’s “under-qualified” for the position. After Ester Bloom, a writer for the Billfold, called Williams “the latest high-profile victim of impostor syndrome,” reactions came fast and furious, so much so it’s been almost impossible to keep up with them all. Enter my Google alert to help me track the story, especially once the initially flurry of responses dies down. Just because a topic is “old news” in some quarters doesn’t mean it ceases to be relevant.
In this case, even though I’ve seen all of one episode of The Daily Show, I don’t need to be a fan of the show to find the broader conversation this story fostered about career and ambition worthwhile. What specifically motivated me to start an alert was Williams’ tweets on the subject. “My worth is not my job,” she asserted. It doesn’t matter that I’m not a Jessica Williams fan per se; it’s a hot topic that extends beyond the specifics of The Daily Show to anyone who’s ever conflated their value as a person with their career, and I want to know more. And by “more,” I mean, everything anyone on the Internet is saying about it. Why? Because if something’s worth digging into, it’s worth going all in. A cursory search might only bring me the most widely read or linked-to pieces on the topic, but an inclusive Google alert will provide other sources I might not have otherwise come across.
To make room for my Williams alert, I had to bump one of my previous alerts, about someone whose name no longer rang any bells. Who knows why I once made an alert about them or why I kept it all these years? But I’m the kind of person who doesn’t mind clinging to artifacts from my past interests. After all, who’s it hurting if I scroll through headlines when I want a break from the rest of my digital life?
Just because a topic is “old news” in some quarters doesn’t mean it ceases to be relevant.
My Google alerts are, essentially, the ultimate form of busywork, because they never end. They are a constant stream of running commentary, keeping my mind from ever being truly blank. On some level, that’s a good thing: I like having new topics to chew on and new ideas racing furiously through my mind. The problem (or joy) is that they never stop.
That is precisely the point: I, unlike so many who are overwhelmed with email, do not want to ever reach inbox zero, an idea that seems appallingly lonely. While inbox zero has been likened to “the Holy Grail of digital lifestyle,” there’s value in its opposite as well. Saving emails, whether they’re news alerts like mine or genuine correspondence, gives us an easily accessible history of ourselves. I process far more pieces of information daily now than I did even 10 years ago; it would be impossible to keep track of it all on my own. That’s a valuable function in an age when we are all overwhelmed, when even emails from friends can start to feel like spam if they’re too frequent.
The details of any individual alert pale next to the simple existence of them en masse. Often I’ll stumble across an alert I started years ago, which takes me down memory lane in the same way looking at old photos does. It’s a snapshot of my past at a given time, reminding me of, for instance, the ex who introduced me to arctic char when my alert for the fish’s name, which I started when we were dating, goes off. I don’t want to relive every moment of that relationship, but I’ll keep the alert simply to remind me of the high points.
Collectively, these seemingly random updates make me feel like I’m worldly. Does it truly matter that I know when C-list celebrities launch flavors at West Hollywood restaurant Millions of Milkshakes? Not at all. But I’m still charmingly amused by this information. It may not “matter,” but for the same reason I watch TMZ, I like having this bizarre gossip mashup constantly at my fingertips. It’s not about impressing other people with my storehouse of fun facts but satisfying my own highly specific curiosity.
They are a constant stream of running commentary, keeping my mind from ever being truly blank.
Even if I don’t get to read an actual newspaper most days, I can still go in depth on my customized mix of pop culture and sexuality topics. No, I don’t need to know every single time the words “roller derby” are mentioned, since I’m unlikely to attend any outside of an hour of my suburban New Jersey home. But I like at least having the option of knowing what I’m choosing to ignore.
They’ve also taught me to be careful what I wish for. I have an alert on “babies,” because, well, I find them cute and adorable and want to have one as soon as possible. Without it, I might have missed out on BuzzFeed’s “Babies Are Sent Home In Christmas Stockings And It’s Insanely Adorable.” Clickbait? Sure, but clickbait is my Internet equivalent of comfort food.
Far more often than a heartwarming result like the above, though, my “babies” alert, which I always hope will bring a smile to my face, instead makes me shudder in horror. Invariably, mixed in with a headline like “Using caffeine to help premature babies survive” are items like “Chile priest who took babies for adoption will not be prosecuted.” But I’ll still take them all, the good, bad, and evil, because the Internet is too vast for any of us to take it all in at once; we each have to find ways to block out the white noise of online navigation in favor of what we do want to consume. This is my methodology.
Email isn’t the only way I access these types of stories; I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, but social media feels more fleeting than email. When I log in to those platforms, I want to see the very latest; I’m less interested in what my friend did last week than what she’s doing right now. I don’t generally bookmark or try to save her newsfeed posts. With email, I stockpile links I want to peruse at a later date, because while today I may not deeply care about the latest news out of Portland, Ore.’s famed Voodoo Doughnuts, it’s quite possible that tomorrow, next week, or next year, I’ll want to gobble up every morsel of information, and when I do, it’ll be there waiting for me.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, my Fifty Shades of Grey nail art alert just went off. That’s one I always make time to read.
Illustration by Max Fleishman