The rise of the quantified self as a cultural phenomenon

The Quantified Self movement was first developed in 2007 by two Wired Magazine editors, Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, who set up a website devoted to the movement in 2008. Interest in the concept and the associated movement has developed rapidly from there. According to The Quantified Self website, there are now over 130 quantified self groups in 34 countries around the world, many of which have regular meetings involving ‘show-and-tell’ discussions of how members have been engaging in self-tracking activities.

As part of investigating the ways in which the quantified self as a new term and practice has developed, I conducted a search for the term as it has appeared in English-language news media articles in the Factiva database, which archives newspaper and magazine articles (including digital and print articles) from over 8,000 sources from the world’s press.

Not surprisingly, given that the Quantified Self website was only established in 2008, the first news article to appear using this term was not until September of that year, just prior to the group’s first-ever meetup. The Washington Post (9 September 2008) noted the establishment of the group and interviewed Gary Wolf and several other people who were engaging in self-tracking.

In 2009 only two news articles appeared mentioning the quantified self: one in the American Life Science Weekly that reported a study on the relevance to healthcare of self-tracking, and the other in the Canadian Globe and Mail that discussed The Quantified Self movement and people involved in it. But the number of articles rose to 21 in 2010 and 33 in 2011 and by 2012 148 articles had been published that used the term. 2013 has witnessed even greater interest: by the end of July 2013, 188 news articles discussing the quantified self had already been published.

While these are not particularly high numbers relative to the thousands of topics that were reported in the news outlets included in Factiva, they do demonstrate evidence of growing and continuing interest in the quantified self which has gathered momentum each year since 2010.

The tenor of news reporting on the quantified self has changed over time. Early reports focused on its innovative aspects and debated whether such close attention to the details of one’s life and bodily functions would extend beyond ‘uber geeks’ or those ‘weirdly narcissistic’ few who are interested in ‘extreme naval gazing’ to the general population (Forbes magazine [USA], 25 April 2011). By 2012, news articles represented the quantified self as growing in popularity and becoming not only an important feature of health promotion but part of everyday life, as a way of maximising productivity and happiness as well as health. The term ‘quantified self’ was now frequently used not only in relation to members of the Quantified Self movement itself, but more generally to refer to the practices of self-tracking or life-logging.

Bearing headlines such as ‘Apps that will help you keep your resolve’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 December 2012), these news reports normalised the practice as applicable to everyone interested in improving their bodies or the selves. As the British Sunday Telegraph Magazine (2 December 2012) put it: ‘It began with a small group of digital obsessives recording their every heartbeat. Today the “quantified self” movement is a gadget-filled fitness craze.’ By June 2013, The Guardian (UK) was contending that ‘the “Quantified Self” movement (is) all the rage for people tracking their physical activity, food intake, vital signs and even their personal genome through digital services’.

News articles also increasingly referred to the plethora of new devices that were being released onto the market to support self-tracking efforts, involving major corporations such as Nike, Apple and Qualcomm, demonstrating a growing interest in the business world in taking advantage of the phenomenon. As 2012 drew to a close, several news reports noted how self-tracking devices could help people achieve their New Year’s resolutions. These technologies were also frequently mentioned in lists of innovations that would attract significant attention in the new year to come from those seeking to develop and sell products for quantified selfers.

News articles in 2013 appearing thus far demonstrate the growing dimensions of this potential market for wearable digital self-tracking devices, with many articles reporting new devices that are in development or that have been released, including ‘digital diapers’, wearable devices as fashion accessories, the use of self-tracking by elite athletes to improve their performances and devices for the ‘quantified pet’. There has been a focus on big data as well, with articles noting the power not only of individualised data in contributing valuable knowledge to self-trackers, but also that of the aggregated big data accumulated across many users uploading their data to websites.

However there is also evidence in recent news reports of the growing realisation of privacy concerns in relation to these data collected with these devices. Questions were raised about who should own these very personal data and how self-trackers can protect their rights to access their own data, as in The Guardian’s (26 June 2013) article headlined: ‘Wearable tech: why Intel thinks we should own our data.’

To establish further how general interest in the quantified self is developing, I used the Google Trends1 tool to see how often the ‘quantified self’ was used as search term for the same time period. The resultant graph showed that searches for the term ‘quantified self’ have risen steadily since early 2009, reaching its peak in April 2013. The regional interest figure, which highlights which areas of the world have used the search term comparatively the most, demonstrates that the USA has by far the greatest interest (top of the scale on 100), followed by Germany (60) and the UK (52). No other countries register on this scale, demonstrating far lower interest2.

I am using these analyses in a current article* that I am preparing on the critical sociology of the quantified self. For previous blog posts on the quantified self in relation to digital health, see here and here.

* Update: This article has now been published as ‘Understanding the human machine’ in IEEE Technology and Society, and can be accessed here.

Footnotes

  1. Google Trends analyses a portion of worldwide Google searches to compute how many searches have been conducted for the terms entered relative to all Google searches over that time period. This indicates the likelihood of a random user to search for the search term from a certain location at a certain time. The tool draws a graph showing interest over time plotted on a scale from 0 to 100 (100 representing the relative peak of interest, not the absolute numbers of searches).
  2. This does not mean that no searches for quantified self were initiated from these countries, but rather that the numbers did not reach the threshold set by Google for registering on the scale.

9 thoughts on “The rise of the quantified self as a cultural phenomenon

  1. Thank you for this well documented article on a particularly intriguing subject. I’m glad to see I’m not the only sociologist using Google Trends. I must say though I’m not comfortable with an international use of the tool, since we can assume Google isn’t translating the search terms we’re looking up.

    For example, I use it frequently for french words or expressions, and unsurprinsingly the only significant areas on the map are french-speaking regions. I guess it is the same for english expressions. In your case, the only non english-speaking country in whish results for “quantified self” are significant is Germany. But as you may note, this is due to the fact that German newspapers tend to use the expression in english. The French newspapers, for example, use various translations of the concept (eg “Se Coacher”, http://www.20minutes.fr/magazine/secoacher/), which make it difficult to track on Google Trends. But I can assure you that personal tracking apps and devices are very popular here !

    Therefore, I think Google Trends is a very powerful tool, and I wish I could use it more frequently in a sociological way, but the methods it uses to process data are private, and thus the results difficult to clearly interpret. Maybe it could be useful to ask Google about it ?

    Again, thanks for the good work.

    Guilhem

    • Thank you for your comments Guilhem. Yes, you make a good point about the language issue. As my French and Italian are very rusty, and I know no other languages, I can focus only on English in my analyses! I did notice quite a few German-language news articles in my initial Factiva search before I narrowed the language to English. But it is interesting that Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians as yet haven’t Googled the quantified self much …

      Deborah

      • Absolutely, these other english-speaking countries ‘seem’ to have no interest in the concept. As you noted, this is probably due to the fact that “the numbers did not reach the threshold set by Google for registering on the scale”. Yet I wish we could be fully aware of these biases, rather than having to guess and suppose…

        Maybe if the results were adjusted for population bias – if Google was couting average queries per inhabitant instead of absolute number of queries, for example – the world map would be more telling. Who knows ?

  2. Pingback: The rise of the quantified self as a cultural p...

  3. Pingback: In these times of “data-utopia”, what questions should we be asking about the rise of self-tracking? | PNCAU

  4. Pingback: iRobot. Like, literally, I’m a robot. | “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it's in hot water.”

  5. Pingback: Re:publica Treffen dieses Jahr mit umfangreichem Re:health und Self-Tracking Programm | Social Media Führerschein

  6. Pingback: Recap Re:publica 2016 mit umfangreichem Re:health und Self-Tracking Programm | Social Media Führerschein

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s