A screenshot of my desktop

My Private Digital Rebellion

An exploration into how I fight against mess and anxiety by keeping a neatly ordered online life.

Content warning: this post contains discussion of mental illness.

I am not an organized person. Ask anyone who has seen my living spaces over the years — parents, college roommates, girlfriends, my roommate’s dog — and they will attest to my constant clutter. I am one of those people who will leave his clothes on the floor for days at a time while simultaneously insisting that, yes, there is a system to how the clothes are laid out on the floor so please leave the piles of shirts and balled up socks alone, thank you.

Digitally, however, I am the complete opposite. Everything about my digital life is curated and structured to the fullest extent possible.

A screenshot of my plain black laptop background
A real screenshot of my desktop background. The two loose files in the bottom right are bound for an external hard drive and order will soon be restored.

I have been this way with computers for as far back as I can remember. When I received my first iPod around the age of 10, a glorious bright blue Nano with four whole gigabytes of storage space, I would spend hours adjusting the artist and genre information on our family’s desktop iTunes library so that my songs would categorize themselves perfectly on my new device. On my phone, I arrange my apps in alphabetical order, first by the title of their folder then within the folders by the name of each app.

The rise of media software like Spotify, Plex, and Letterboxd over the last decade has only fed into this passion for digital organization. For example, I curate more than 50 playlists on my Spotify, many of them designed with weirdly specific criteria as their guide.

A screenshot of a Spotify playlist titled "Guys Who Sing" featuring Frank Ocean
Do I really need a 79 song playlist to remind myself Frank Ocean is the GOAT? No, but I feel better with it than I would without it.

Most of these playlists are private or link-only, so their creation is not a clout chasing move to gain followers. I simply feel better when my digital life is as ordered as my physical life is chaotic.

While my workspace is littered with loose papers, chicken scratch Post-It notes, and receipts for lunch from three months ago, my Plex drive contains every movie I own, metadata dutifully imported using a special program called Subler, along with the film’s poster manually adjusted after the fact to match the official cinematic release in case IMDb pulls the wrong artwork.

The irony of the stark discrepancy between my physical workspace and digital storage is that my Plex drive is private, to be seen only by me and the friends I watch movies with, while my workspace (post-COVID) will be seen daily by dozens, if not hundreds, of coworkers, custodians, fire marshals, and SafeShred staffers.

This week’s digital organization passion project is my new Letterboxd profile. Introduced to me by some Twitter friends, the movie rating platform is hardly new. However, not being much of a film buff, I only learned of and signed up for the site this week.

In two days, I have already created five lists, reviewed twelve movies, and logged 95 films that I have seen. Something about categorizing the movies I have watched throughout my life, once again often sorted into playlists based on hyper-specific criteria, appeals to me. It makes me feel productive to sort digital items ever so carefully, despite the fact that “film critic” could not be further from my job description.

Before continuing, I want to clear up an important fact, perhaps answering a question arising in your mind already. I do not have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There is this obnoxious trend online where someone will share a picture of their well-arranged desk or tweet (especially pre-pandemic) about their affinity for hand sanitizer and label themselves as “so OCD”.

In reality, OCD is a mental illness that afflicts millions of people around the world and causes repetitive, even painful, habits that the person is, at times, powerless to stop. But just as someone who fails to think before they speak and utters obnoxious comments does not have Tourette’s, someone who prefers to alphabetize their bookcase does not have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

What I have instead is a strong desire for digital tranquility. 

This attitude extends beyond music and movie software into my personal digital life as well. I regularly maintain a spreadsheet, consisting of a double-digit number of tabs, listing every location across all seven continents I want to visit before I die. This spreadsheet dates back more than two years, despite the fact that I have the bank account and vaccine eligibility of a recent college graduate.

The travel destinations file is even complete with a sum function that tells me what percentage of my list I have visited so far. I am already 2.38 percent of the way finished seeing the world!

In my phone’s notes app, I track every movie and television show I want to watch, ordered chronologically by when I first became aware of the film or series. Both of these lists have grown longer, not shorter, over their multi-year lifespans. And my watch lists have nothing on my reading list, which is so long it makes me feel like the guy from that famous “Last Man on Earth” Twilight Zone clip, expertly parodied below by the cartoon Futurama.

Again, I definitely do not have OCD, and any comparison to people who live daily with that illness would be offensive. But writing this post is my attempt to figure out why I am the way I am virtually, and throughout the writing process, I developed two theories.

The first, regarding the stark contrast between my junk-littered desk and immaculately manicured desktop, or between my incorrectly packaged Xbox games and my Plex movie database painstakingly edited to properly classify every film I own, is that I treat my digital life as an internal revolt against my chaotic and cluttered physical life. 

Fastidiously cataloging songs based on absurdly specific moods and genres, rushing to my Letterboxd to mark a film as “viewed” minutes after I remember having watched it one time seven years ago, or running my Kindle ebooks through the software program Calibre to ensure that not only are their title and author correctly attributed, but their publisher and edition too, all constitute tiny acts of rebellion against my real world self, who cannot be bothered to sort his spoons by size or to spend five extra minutes using a level to make sure my posters are hung up straight.

At some level of internal subconsciousness, I too desire order, and this desire manifests itself through my computer and phone screens.

My conclusion about the second quirk I outlined, my semi-related habit of creating lists of everything from video games I plan to purchase to books I want to read to cities, mountain ranges, and beaches I want to visit is less exciting but likely more correct. While I certainly, without a doubt, do not have OCD, I have been living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder for years. 

Typically, I am aware of my medical-grade anxiety when my stomach twists into knots before inconsequential scenarios other people live through on a daily basis or when my brain hyper-fixates on the incredibly remote possibility of a very precise negative outcome befalling me. I manage these physical and mental symptoms with a variety of treatments and experience good and bad periods of time, as does anyone else suffering from any type of illness.

But I think my determined use of lists and spreadsheets to document each pop culture and travel experience I hope to have over the course of my life speaks to a personal manifestation of my deeper fears, fears to which most people can relate. I fear dying before I travel the world, or debate every critically acclaimed movie, or rate every binge worthy Netflix original. I fear not achieving my goals before I even figure out what they are.

The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated these fears. Every responsible person in the world has essentially lost a year (and counting) of their lives, so I am far from unique. But for young people, quarantines and social distancing have hit a little harder.

While canceled proms and senior nights and commencements received plenty of attention in the news, with passionate adults doing their absolute best to recreate these experiences on Zoom or with social distancing or two years later (why?), it is the much smaller rites of passages lost to COVID-19 that haunt me when I can’t sleep at night.

A photo of a masked Sophia and Nick Testani graduating from Fayetteville-Manlius High School in June 2020.
My twin siblings, Sophia and Nick, graduate social distance style from our high school in June 2020. Photo credits to me!

Instead of vacations or family gatherings throughout the summer to celebrate graduations and first full-time job offers, the world’s young people spent uncertain summers and falls delivering with DoorDash, returning to high school jobs at grocery stores to pay rent, or staying inside, alone, for eight months to care for immunocompromised loved ones.

Instead of staying out too late on Thursday nights with new coworkers after starting these celebrated new jobs, 23-year olds fall asleep at 10:00 p.m. after realizing they have seen everything worth watching, not just on Netflix, but on Hulu and HBO as well.

So these lists are my small way of promising to myself “I will accomplish these things I want to do before I die.” I started compiling most of them before the pandemic, and I will maintain them long after the world receives its vaccines, but they have taken on a new weight in light of the very real, very important lesson formerly invincible twenty-somethings have learned over the last year. 

Life is short. Make the most of it.

Ben Testani
Ben Testani is a freelance writer and young professional. Though originally from Central New York, he is currently based out of Sacramento, California. He enjoys basketball, noise-cancelling headphones, and the National Parks Service.
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