Beyond the quantified self: the reflexive monitoring self

This piece is partly a response to a recent blog post by Mark Carrigan about the concept of the qualified self, and partly a section of the new book that I am working on about the sociology of self-tracking cultures.

As part of my research for the book I made a Google Trends graph comparing the major terms that are used to denote the practices of voluntarily monitoring aspects of the self: self-tracking, the quantified self, life logging and personal analytics. As the resultant graph demonstrates, it was not until mid-2007 that any of these terms began to show up in Google searches. Self-tracking led the way, followed by life logging, then personal analytics. The quantified self is the newest term. It began to appear in searches in January 2010 and rose quickly in popularity, beginning to overtake self-tracking by April 2012 (although just recently self-tracking has caught up again). The quantified self, therefore, has become a well-used term, at least among people using Google Search. In another study of news coverage of the quantified self I found that the term has become increasingly used in these accounts as well.

But is it time to rethink or even relinquish the term ‘the quantified self’? For my book I prefer to use ‘self-tracking’ over the alternatives, as this term is broader and more inclusive of a range of practices (and I refer to ‘self-tracking cultures’ to denote the various social, cultural and political contexts in which self-tracking practices are carried out).

Self-tracking is not simply about quantified (or quantifiable) information. Many self-trackers record non-quantifiable data as part of their practice, including journaling accounts of their daily activities, emotional states and relationships, collecting audio data or visual images and producing visualisations that centre on their aesthetic or explanatory properties rather than their representation of numbers.

Some commentators seek to position the ‘qualified self’ as a practice involving reflection and interpretation of information, whether this information is in the form of numbers or not. For several writers, the qualified self involves interpretation and assessment of any form of data, a considered engagement with this information that seeks to contextualise it in relation to other forms of data. As two designers put it:

context humanizes the numbers and places them back into our lives in meaningful ways. For example, a fitness tracker can tell us that our physical activity is down from the previous month. But it cannot tell us that the inactivity is due to a sprained ankle. Given that context, those declining numbers might tell a different story: that we are recovering steadily rather than slacking off. Even in that simple scenario, it is clear that a small bit of context can frame data in a much more insightful way.

In her blog post on the qualified self Jenny Davis has similarly contended that:

This qualitative component is key in mediating between raw numbers and identity meanings. If self-quantifiers are seeking self-knowledge through numbers, then narratives and subjective interpretations are the mechanisms by which data morphs into selves. Self-quantifiers don’t just use data to learn about themselves, but rather, use data to construct the stories that they tell themselves about themselves.

This distinction between the quantified and the qualified self works to challenge the term ‘the quantified self’. The essential feature of the quantified self, at least as it is described in the motto ‘self knowledge through numbers’ (used on the official Quantified Self website) is self-knowledge, however it is produced. Indeed selfhood and identity as they are articulated via self-tracking are inextricably entangled with interpretation of information. It could be argued that the word ‘numbers’ really comes to stand for ‘information of any kind about oneself’ and ‘self-knowledge’ means not only the accumulation of facts about oneself, but paying attention to the self or self-awareness. The practice of self-tracking can therefore be regarded as a way of thinking through as well as with information, working to make connections between one kind or source of information and others and interrogating the quality or validity of the data.

When self-tracking is viewed in this way, numbers are not important. What is important for self-trackers is the range of information that can be gathered about one’s self, what specific types of information one chooses to collect and the process of making sense of this information as part of the ethical project of selfhood. Davis’s description of the qualified self makes the important point that the information that self-trackers collect on themselves is not simply about self-knowledge but also about presentations and narratives of selfhood – or what might also be glossed as performing selfhood. She refers to the ‘stories that they tell about themselves’, but self-tracking is also about the stories that people tell others, or the types of selves that are presented to others. Indeed the very act of self-tracking, or positioning oneself as a self-tracker, is already a performance of a certain type of subject: the entrepreneurial, self-optimising subject. A fine line must be negotiated, however, in seeking to perform this subject position. Too much focus on the self may be interpreted as self-obsession and narcissism, while too little signifies failure to conform to the idealised responsible citizen who is actively seeking out information as part of the project of taking control over her or his life.

At the broader level of social explanation, self-tracking is the latest practice in a long tradition of ethical self-reflection that extends back to the ancients, inflected through newer devices for tracking and contemporary understandings about ideal selfhood. Novel ways of collecting, representing and sharing data have emerged in digital society. What might be better described as ‘the reflexive monitoring self’ is an aggregation of practices that combine regular and systemised information collection, interpretation and reflection as part of working towards the goal of becoming. Underpinning these efforts are the notion of an ethical incompleteness and a set of moral obligations concerning working on the self that are central to contemporary ideas about selfhood and citizenship. I will be looking in detail at these aspects in the book and expanding on the arguments presented here.


Representations of bodies/selves online

Another excerpt from  my forthcoming book Digital Sociology, taken from Chapter 8, ‘The Digitised Body/Self’.

People discuss and visually represent their (and others’) bodies incessantly as part of using social media. The body is represented in ever finer detail on the types of digital networks and platforms that are now available for use. Social media sites such as YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and Flickr focus on the uploading, curating and sharing of images, including many of bodies. Facebook and Twitter also provide opportunities for users to share images of bodies. Bodies receive much digital attention, particularly those of celebrities, but increasingly those of ordinary users. Female celebrities, in particular, are the subject of continual digital visualising by paparazzi and fans and constant commentary in social media and news sites on the appropriateness and attractiveness or otherwise of their bodies (Gorton and Garde-Hansen 2013).

Due to the plethora of online platforms and apps devoted to human anatomy, the internal organs and workings of the human body have moved from being exclusively the preserve of medical students and surgeons to being open to the gaze of all. Online technologies now allow anyone with access to a computer to view highly detailed visual images of the inside of the body. Although these images may have been produced for medical students and medical practitioners and other health care workers, they are readily available to the general public. Tapping in the search term ‘human anatomy’ will call up many apps on the Apple App Store or Google Play which provide such details. Many websites also provide graphic images of the human body. The Visual Human Project used computer technologies to represent in fine detail the anatomical structure of male and female cadavers. Each body was cross-sectioned transversely from head to toe and images of the sections of their bodies using Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Computed Tomography were uploaded to a computer website and can also be viewed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington (The Visible Human Project  2013).

All shapes and sizes of living human bodies are available for viewing online. Sites as diverse as those supporting people wishing to engage in self-starvation or purging (the so-called ‘pro-ana’ or ‘thinspiration’ sites) and promoting cosmetic surgery, used by fat activists seeking to represent the fat body in positive ways that resist fat-shaming, sites for people engaged in self-harming practices or body-building, for transgender people and tattoo or body piercing devotees, not to mention the huge variety of sites devoted to pornography and sexual fetishes, all display images of a wide variety of body shapes and sizes and of bodies engaged in a multitude of practices that are both normative and go beyond the norm. In addition there are the sites that represent bodies undergoing various forms of medical procedures (there are many videos of surgery on YouTube), providing vivid images or descriptions of the ills and diseases from which bodies may suffer.

Social and other digital media have facilitated the sharing of images and descriptions of many varied forms of human life, from the very earliest stage of human development. A huge range of representations of embryos and foetuses, and indeed even the moment of fertilisation of a human ovum by a sperm cell can be viewed on the internet. Such media as YouTube videos of conception and embryonic development and websites such as the Human Embryo Project featuring detailed images and descriptions of each stage of unborn development allow people to gaze upon and learn about the unborn human. Proud parents now routinely post obstetric ultrasound images of their unborn to social media sites to announce a pregnancy. Some parents who have experience miscarriage, foetal loss or stillbirth use memorialisation websites or make videos to post on YouTube featuring ultrasound images, hand- or footprints of the dead unborn and even images of its dead body. As a result, via digital media the unborn human entity now receives a far greater degree of visibility than at any other time in the past (Lupton 2013).

At the other end of the human lifespan, the dead are achieving a kind of online immortality. Just as with the online memorialisation of the dead unborn, people’s death can be announced and memorialised via a plethora of online media. A digital afterlife may be achieved using these technologies. For example, Facebook pages are now frequently used to memorialise people who have died. The dead person’s own personal Facebook page may be used by others to communicate their feelings with each other about the person’s death, or they may establish a dedicated Facebook Group to exchange thoughts and memories about that individual (Bollmer 2013, Brubaker et al. 2013).

Commercial websites have been established that provide ‘afterlife online services’, as one such website puts it, that help people ‘plan for your digital death and afterlife or memorialize loved ones’ (The Digital Beyond  2013). They encourage the bereaved to submit photos and stories about a dead person or provide an online site for people to store their own memorabilia about their lives or important documents in anticipation of their death, leave or send posthumous messages, plan their funerals and provide details of what should happen to their social media profiles after death. Such terms as ‘digital estate’ or ‘digital assets’ are used to denote important documents, images and other information that have been rendered into digital formats for storage and distribution following a person’s death. Some services provide the facility for people to send email messages, images and audio or video recordings up to 60 years following their death. The LifeNaut platform allows people to create a ‘mindfile’: a personal archive of images, a timeline of their life, documents, places they have visited, and other information about themselves, as well as an avatar that will react and respond with their beliefs, attitudes and mannerisms. The company also provides a storage facility for preserving the individual’s DNA material. All of these data are preserved for the benefit of future generations.

The increasingly digitised representation of people is highlighted in artist Adam Nash’s collaborative art project Autoscopia (Autoscopia  2013). In this project the available online images for individuals are derived from web searches and configured into new, recombinant portraits of that individual (anyone can try it using their own name or any other person’s name). These digitised portraits then enter into the internet via tweeted links, thus recursively feeding themselves back into the latest versions of the portraits. In this project, data-as-data (the digitised image data that are mined by the Autoscopia computer program from many parts of the internet) are remodulated for the purposes of the art project into a different type of image, one formed from many images.

This art project raises intriguing questions about the ways in which digital data forms can be configured and reconfigured (or in Nash’s terms modulated and remodulated) that have implications more broadly for the power of digital data to configure embodiment. A digitised map, for example, demonstrating outbreaks of infectious diseases in certain geographical locations (as produced by the Health Map platform) is a modulation of various types of data that have been entered into the platform, whether from mining social media or by users themselves reporting their own illnesses. These visualisations are virtual body fragments, representing as they do various bodily sensations and signs reinterpreted as symptoms and mapped in geo-located form. Bodies themselves become represented as forms of disease in this mapping technology, their fleshly reality stripped down to their symptoms. Infectious diseases are also reinterpreted as digital objects via such technologies. They are constantly remodulated by new data inputs just as the digital portraits produced through the Autoscopia project continually reconstitute the ‘reality’ of an individual’s visage.

Digital technology practices produce new and constantly changing forms of digitised cyborg assemblages. When engaging in digital technologies, bodies and selves become fragmented in certain ways as various types of data on our selves and our bodies are transmitted along specific pathways but then joined together in new formations (Enriquez 2012). Via these accumulations of data about individuals’ bodies, the body is extended beyond the flesh into digital data archives. The data assemblages thus configured have separate, although intertwined, lives in relation to the fleshly bodies that they represent (Bollmer 2013).

The data assemblages that are configured from the diverse forms of data that are produced from our digital interactions are constantly shifting and changing as new data are added to them. Data doubles feed back information to the user in ways that are intended to encourage the user’s body to act in certain ways. When individuals receive positive comments or likes from social media friends or followers on the images or information they post about their bodies, thus may encourage them to continue in the enterprise of embodiment that they so publicised (whether this is a certain hairstyle, way of dress, use of cosmetics or fitness or weight-loss regime). If responses are negative or non-committal, users may represent their bodies or engage in different bodily practices in response. The flow of information, therefore, is not one-way or static: it is part of a continual loop of the production of bodily-related data and response to these data. Digital data doubles support a reflexive, self-monitoring awareness of the body, bringing the body to the fore. They are part of the augmented reality of the digital cyborg assemblage.


Autoscopia  (2013) Accessed 26 September 2013. Available from

Bollmer, G.D. (2013) Millions now living will never die: cultural anxieties about the afterlife of information. The Information Society, 29 (3), 142-151.

Brubaker, J., Hayes, G. and Dourish, P. (2013) Beyond the grave: Facebook as a site for the expansion of death and mourning. The Information Society, 29 (3), 152-163.

The Digital Beyond  (2013) Accessed 19 December 2013. Available from

Enriquez, J.G. (2012) Bodily aware in cyber-research. In H. Breslow and A. Mousoutzanis (eds) Cybercultures: Mediations of Community, Culture, Politics. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 59-72.

Gorton, K. and Garde-Hansen, J. (2013) From old media whore to new media troll: the online negotiation of Madonna’s ageing body. Feminist Media Studies, 13 (2), 288-302.

Lupton, D. (2013) The Social Worlds of the Unborn. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

The Visible Human Project  (2013) Accessed 28 March 2014. Available from