Self-tracking cultures: towards a sociology of personal informatics

I have had a full refereed paper accepted for the OzCHI conference, to be held in Sydney in December. The abstract is below. For a PDF of the full paper, click here Self-tracking Cultures – OzCHI Conference Paper

A body of literature on self-tracking has been established in human-computer interaction studies. Contributors to this literature tend to take a cognitive or behavioural psychology approach to theorising and explaining self-tracking. Such an approach is limited to understanding individual behaviour. Yet self-tracking is a profoundly social practice, both in terms of the enculturated meanings with which it is invested and the social encounters and social institutions that are part of the self-tracking phenomenon. In this paper I contend that sociological perspectives can contribute some intriguing possibilities for human-computer interaction research, particularly in developing an understanding of the wider social, cultural and political dimensions of what I refer to as ‘self-tracking cultures’. The discussion focuses on the following topics: self-optimisation and governing the self; entanglements of bodies and technologies; the valorisation of data; data doubles; and social inequalities and self-tracking. The paper ends with outlining some directions for future research on self-tracking cultures that goes beyond the individual to the social.

 

The five modes of self-tracking

Recently I have been working on a conference paper that seeks to outline the five different modes of self-tracking that I have identified as currently in existence. (Update – the full paper can now be downloaded here).

I argue that there is evidence that the personal data that are derived from individuals engaging in reflexive self-monitoring are now beginning to be used by agencies and organisations beyond the personal and privatised realm. Self-tracking rationales and sites are proliferating as part of a ‘function creep’ of the technology and ethos of self-tracking. The detail offered by these data on individuals and the growing commodification and commercial value of digital data have led government, managerial and commercial enterprises to explore ways of appropriating self-tracking for their own purposes. In some contexts people are encouraged, ‘nudged’, obliged or coerced into using digital devices to produce personal data which are then used by others.

The paper examines these issues, outlining five modes of self-tracking that have emerged: private, pushed, communal, imposed and exploited. There are intersections and recursive relationships between each of these self-tracking modes. However there are also observable differences related to the extent to which the self-tracking is taken up voluntarily and the purposes to which the data thus created are put.

Here are definitions of the typology of self-tracking that I have developed:

  • Private self-tracking relates to self-tracking practices that are taken up voluntarily as part of the quest for self-knowledge and self-optimisation and as an often pleasurable and playful mode of selfhood. Private self-tracking, as espoused in the Quantified Self’s goal of ‘self  knowledge through numbers’, is undertaken for purely personal reasons and the data are kept private or shared only with limited and selected others. This is perhaps the most public and well-known face of self-tracking.
  • Pushed self-tracking represents a mode that departs from the private self-tracking mode in that the initial incentive for engaging in self-tracking comes from another actor or agency. Self-monitoring may be taken up voluntarily, but in response to external encouragement or advocating rather than as a personal and wholly private initiative. Examples include the move in preventive medicine, health promotion and patient self-care to encourage people to monitor their biometrics to achieve targeted health goals. The workplace has become a key site of pushed self-tracking, particularly in relation to corporate wellness programs where workers are encourage to take up self-tracking and share their data with their employer.
  • Communal self-tracking involves the voluntary sharing of a tracker’s personal data with other people. They may use social media, platforms designed for comparing and sharing personal data and sites such as the Quantified Self website to engage with and learn from other self-trackers. Some attend meetups or conferences to meet face-to-face with other self-trackers and share their data and evaluations of the value of different techniques and devices for self-tracking. This mode is also evident in citizen science, citizen sensing and community development initiatives using data collected by individuals on their local environs, such as air quality, traffic conditions and crime rate that are then aggregated with other participants for use in improving local conditions and services or political action.
  • Imposed self-tracking involves the imposition of self-tracking practices upon individuals by others primarily for these others’ benefit. These include the use of tracking devices as part of worker productivity monitoring and efficiency programs. There is a fine line between pushed self-tracking and imposed self-tracking. While some elements of self-interest may still operate, people may not always have full choice over whether or not they engage in self-tracking. In the case of self-tracking in corporate wellness programs, employees must give their consent to wearing the devices and allowing employers to view their activity data. However failure to comply may lead to higher health insurance premiums enforced by an employer, as is happening in some workplaces in the United States. At its most coercive, imposed self-tracking is used in programs involving monitoring of location and drug use for probation and parole surveillance, drug addiction programs and family law and child custody monitoring.
  • Exploited self-tracking refers to the ways in which individuals’ personal data are repurposed for the (often commercial) benefit of others. Exploited self-tracking is often marketed to consumers as a way for them to benefit personally, whether by sharing their information with others as a form of communal self-tracking or by earning points or rewards. However their data are then used by second parties for their own purposes and in some cases are sold to or used by third parties. Customer loyalty programs, in which consumers voluntarily sign up to have their individual purchasing habits logged by retailers in return for points or rewards is one example. Some retailers (for example a large pharmacy chain in the US) are beginning to use wearable devices as part of their customer rewards schemes, encouraging customers to upload their personal fitness data to their platforms. The data can then be used by the retailers for their marketing, advertising and product offers as well as onsold to third parties.

In the rest of the paper I draw upon theoretical perspectives on concepts of selfhood, citizenship, biopolitics and data practices and assemblages in discussing the wider sociocultural implications of the emergence and development of these modes of self-tracking. I argue that there are many important issues that require further exploring in relation to the appropriation of self-tracking. As humans increasingly become nodes in the Internet of Things, generating and exchanging digital data with other smart, sensor-equipped objects, self-tracking practices will most probably become unavoidable for many people, whether they are taken up voluntarily or pushed or imposed upon them. The evidence outlined in this paper suggests a gradually widening scope for the use of self-tracking that is likely to expand as a growing number of agencies and organisations realise the potential of the data that are produced from these practices.

Edit (12 December 2015): More on this topic can be found in my book The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking Cultures.