Do Young People(TM) not know how folders work?

January 4, 2022

Apparently there’s a worrying trend in computer science academia. It could be another one of those “generational things”, but I wonder whether it’s actually a real problem.

File Not Found is an article by Monica Chin on The Verge, and it summarises the trend for ‘Gen Z-ers’ to find difficulty in using files and folders on their computer.

Essentially, they’re so used to using the search tool on their computer that they just dump everything in one place (and they don’t usually know where that place is either, but it’s often OneDrive or Dropbox) and search for a file when they need it.

The article seems keen to emphasise the generational divide, with the professors not understanding what the students are thinking. Plus, for bonus Old Points, they don’t understand Instagram either.

Search is the new finding

Chin notices that the lack of files and folders arose with the likes of those cloud services – Google Drive, Box – around the 2010s. That’s also when search got good, and when the people who were coming of age had not known a world without Google search and Windows / macOS file searching.

The article ends with the suggestion that maybe one day we’ll all act like the students. Maybe hierarchical folders are a thing of the past, obsolete, like soldering your computer together when you buy it.

Folders have their uses, if you know where to look

There are a few things wrong with this view.

For a start, hierarchical folders aren’t that tricky. Sure, if you’ve never come across them before they’re not intuitive. Nothing in computing is: we’ve learned it at some point.

But boxes-within-boxes isn’t a totally alien concept to human experience like, say, drop down menus and hyperlinks are.

I think this ‘divide’, if it is generational, is just down to experience. My first PC came with a DOS manual, and I followed a few of its tutorials. That’s where I learnt about folders.

Secondly, my first PC didn’t do all that much more than let me edit files. There weren’t thousands of photos on there, nor music files. There were just a couple of dozen documents and, later, when I went to university, basically more (but not much more) of the same.

Folders made sense, and weren’t hard to set up. For example, I would just create folders for different course modules, or years.

It was totally different to now when I take a load of photos on my phone and later just dump them onto the giant pile. There’s no natural dividing line between photo collections, only the ones I make myself, like year or location, and search could bring those divisions to the screen for me if I want.

When I first started taking digital photos, it took me a while to get used to the fact that I wouldn’t be renaming all my photos to match the location or event they witnessed. But that’s exactly what I’ve always done with documents, spreadsheets and presentations. You soon get mad at your past self for leaving everything as ‘Untitled1’, ‘Untitled2 (revised)’ etc.

So there are advantages to learning to use a hierarchical system. They just might not apply to your vast collections of photos and music tracks.

Qui Bono?

For those files that benefit, there are more advantages.

You can avoid duplicate files when you see them right next to each other in your project folder. You can name two files the same thing when they’re in different folders. That has its own problems, but if Project A has a Requirements document, then so can Project B.

When you’re finished with a project, you can delete anything you don’t need, such as rough drafts and dozens of photos you never used. If everything’s in one location, how would you ever know this cruft was building up? Would you, could you, bother looking for junk?

And these days, what with shrinking hard drive sizes, those duplicates and useless files cost money. If you’re putting everything in a cloud storage folder, you can easily end up with much more space being used than you need. You’ll have to keep pumping cash into that storage account if it’s never going to get smaller.

The real future of file management

I don’t think it’s a generational thing, despite how columnists like to portray it. It might have something to do with how computer use has evolved, but we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The trend seems to be in reducing effort: the search tools can look into all kinds of file properties so that you don’t have too. I assume AI will only improve things as our computers recognise which files we tend to work on together, as well as being able to associate two files that have related content. Microsoft Teams and Planner already make stabs at that, though it’s not great just yet.

So if you’ve never used folders before, consider them as a still-useful way of filing your documents and projects. It might even save you some money in the long run.

The evolution of file management

But there’s something else I think will emerge in the future, and again which is already here in some form: file versioning.

OneDrive/Sharepoint lets you auto-save files as you edit, and you can then restore old versions if something goes wrong. It finally fulfils the demand made in Cooper et al’s The Elements of Interaction Design: the Save button is pointless: who wouldn’t want to save their work?

The save button is a relic of software design that too closely matched what was going on in the hardware, not what the user was thinking. Now we can save everything all the time, and use versioning to roll back accidental and unwanted edits.

As a software developer I’m familiar with using the likes of Git to manage changes, to branch changes off when I’m testing something, and to merge them back again when I’m bringing features into the original version. This is also great for collaboration, allowing multiple users to work on different versions of the same file, and combine the best changes from each version later.

I think in the future our files will act like this. For those people who just want to make adjustments, then this is a great, automated backup tool. But for those of us who want to use the capabilities a bit more deeply, all sorts of useful stuff becomes available. It’ll be invisible to those who want to ignore it, which is a great way for things to be.

In summary: I don’t think that being ignorant of hierarchical structure is some new tangled thing the youth are doing, nor that we’ll all catch up with them one day.

It’s more a product of how the type and amount of data on a computer has evolved over the years, and how the sources of that data work. Remember: music players still organise tracks by artist and album. It’s not a totally alien concept, but users are no longer being introduced to it for documents any more.

Files and folders are perhaps one of the very few decent metaphors from the physical world, that can help us navigate and manage our digital stuff. But perhaps that’s what throws people, and maybe we can do away with the terminology.

The intelligent folders in Mac’s Mail app (which are merely virtual folders that are effectively saved searches) are one such thing. Perhaps this is the way forward: our files might all be in one repository, but we’ll get used to dividing them by search queries. This feels like the best of both worlds, despite the risk of amassing GBs of useless data that never gets searched.

In the end I think we’re in a between-times. Some data we don’t need to sort (music, photos) and some we really do (documents, projects). Now that we know that students don’t automatically know about the benefits of files and folders (and, by extension, organisation), teachers should prepare themselves to make some recommendations.