Lively devices, lively data and lively leisure studies

This is a foreword I wrote for a Leisure Studies special issue on digital leisure cultures (the link to the journal version is here).

In the countries of the Global North, each person, to a greater or lesser degree, has become configured as a data subject. When we use search engines, smartphones and other digital devices, apps and social media platforms, and when we move around in spaces carrying devices the record our geolocation or where there are embedded sensors or cameras recording our movements, we are datafied: rendered into assemblages of digital data. These personal digital data assemblages are only ever partial portraits of us and are constantly changing: but they are beginning to have significant impacts on the ways in which people understand themselves and others and on their life opportunities and chances. Leisure cultures and practices are imbricated within digital and data practices and assemblages. Indeed, digital technologies are beginning to transform many areas of life into leisure pursuits in unprecedented ways, expanding the purview of leisure studies.

These processes of datafication can begin even before birth and continue after death. Proud expectant parents commonly announce pregnancies on social media, uploading ultrasound images of their foetuses and sometimes even creating accounts in the name of the unborn so that they can ostensibly communicate from within the womb. Images from the birth of the child may also become publicly disseminated: as in the genre of the childbirth video on YouTube. This is followed by the opportunity for parents to record and broadcast many images of their babies’ and children’s lives. At the other end of life, many images of the dying and dead bodies can now be found on the internet. People with terminal illnesses write blogs, use Facebook status updates or tweet about their experiences and post images of themselves as their bodies deteriorate. Memorial websites or dedicated pages on social media sites are used after people’s death to commemorate them. Beyond these types of datafication, the data generated from other interactions online and by digital sensors in devices and physical environments constantly work to generate streams of digital data about people. In some cases, people may choose to generate these data; in most other cases, they are collected and used by others, often without people’s knowledge or consent. These data have become highly valuable as elements of the global knowledge economy, whether aggregated and used as big data sets or used to reveal insights into individuals’ habits, behaviours and preferences.

One of my current research interests is exploring the ways in which digital technologies work to generate personal information about people and how individuals themselves and a range of other actors and agencies use these data. I have developed the concept of ‘lively data’, which is an attempt to incorporate the various elements of how we are living with and by our data. Lively data are generated by lively devices: those smartphones, tablet computers, wearable devices and embedded sensors that we live with and alongside, our companions throughout our waking days. Lively data about humans are vital in four main respects: 1) they are about human life itself; 2) they have their own social lives as they circulate and combine and recombine in the digital data economy; 3) they are beginning to affect people’s lives, limiting or promoting life chances and opportunities (for example, whether people are offered employment or credit); and 4) they contribute to livelihoods (as part of their economic and managerial value).

These elements of datafication and lively data have major implications for leisure cultures. Research into people’s use of digital technologies for recreation, including the articles collected here and others previously published in this journal, draws attention to the pleasures, excitements and playful dimensions of digital encounters. These are important aspects to consider, particularly when much research into digital society focuses on the limitations or dangers of digital technology use such as the possibilities of various types of ‘addiction’ to their use or the potential for oppressive surveillance or exploitation of users that these technologies present. What is often lost in such discussions is an acknowledgement of the value that digital technologies can offer ordinary users (and not just the internet empires that profit from them). Perspectives that can balance awareness of both the benefits and possible drawbacks of digital technologies provide a richer analysis of their affordances and social impact. When people are using digital technologies for leisure purposes, they are largely doing so voluntarily: because they have identified a personal use for the technologies that will provide enjoyment, relaxation or some other form of escape from the workaday world. What is particularly intriguing, at least from my perspective in my interest in lively data, is how the data streams from digitised leisure pursuits are becoming increasingly entangled with other areas of life and concepts of selfhood. Gamification and ludification strategies, in which elements of play are introduced into domains such as the workplace, healthcare, intimate relationships and educational institutions, are central to this expansion.

Thus, for example, we now see concepts of the ‘healthy, productive worker’, in which employers seek to encourage their workers to engage in fitness pursuits to develop highly-achieving and healthy employees who can avoid taking time out because of illness and operate at maximum efficiency in the workplace. Fitness tracker companies offer employers discounted wearable devices for their employees so that corporate ‘wellness’ programs can be put in place in which fitness data sharing and competition are encouraged among employees. Dating apps like Tinder encourage users to think of the search for partners as a game and the attractive presentation of the self as a key element in ‘winning’ the interest of many potential dates. The #fitspo and #fitspiration hashtags used in Instagram and other social media platforms draw attention to female and male bodies that are slim, physically fit and well-groomed, performing dominant notions of sexual attractiveness. Pregnancy has become ludified with a range of digital technologies. Using their smartphones and dedicated apps, pregnant women can take ‘belfies’, or belly selfies, and generate time-lapse videos for their own and others’ entertainment (including uploading the videos on social media sites). 3D-printing companies offer parents the opportunity to generate replicas of their foetuses from 3D ultrasounds, for use as display objects on mantelpieces or work desks. Little girls are offered apps which encourage then to perform makeovers on pregnant women or help them deliver their babies via caesarean section. In the education sector, digitised gamification blurs leisure, learning and physical fitness. Schools are beginning to distribute heart rate monitors, coaching apps and other self-tracking devices to children during sporting activities and physical education classes, promoting a culture of self-surveillance via digital data at the same time as teachers’ monitoring of their students’ bodies is intensified. Online education platforms for children like Mathletics encourage users to complete tasks to win medals and work their way up the leaderboard, competing against other users around the world.

In these domains and many others, the intersections of work, play, health, fitness, education, parenthood, intimacy, productivity, achievement and concepts of embodiment, selfhood and social relations are blurred, complicated and far-reaching. These practices raise many questions for researchers interested in digitised leisure cultures across the age span. What are the affordances of the devices, software and platforms that people use for leisure? How do these technologies promote and limit leisure activities? How are people’s data used by other actors and agencies and in what ways do these third parties profit from them? What do people know about how their personal details are generated, stored and used by other actors and agencies? How do they engage with their own data or those about others in their lives? What benefits, pleasures and opportunities do such activities offer, and what are their drawbacks, risks and harms? How are the carers and teachers of children and young people encouraging or enjoining them to use these technologies and to what extent are they are aware of the possible harms as well as benefits? How are data privacy and security issues recognised and managed, on the part both of those who take up these pursuits voluntarily and those who encourage or impose them on others? When does digitised leisure begin to feel more like work and vice versa: and what are the implications of this?

These questions return to the issue of lively data, and how these data are generated and managed, the impact they have on people’s lives and concepts of selfhood and embodiment. As I noted earlier, digital technologies contribute to new ways of reconceptualising areas of life as games or as leisure pursuits that previously were not thought of or treated in those terms. In the context of this move towards rendering practices and phenomena as recreational and the rapidly-changing sociomaterial environment, all social researchers interested in digital society need to be lively in response to lively devices and lively data. As the editors of this special issue contend, researching digital leisure cultures demands a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspective. Several exciting new interdisciplinary areas have emerged in response to the increasingly digitised world: among them internet studies, platform studies, software studies, critical algorithm studies and critical data studies. The ways in which leisure studies can engage with these, as well the work carried out in sub-disciplines such as digital sociology, digital humanities and digital anthropology, have yet to be fully realised. In return, the key focus areas of leisure studies, both conceptually and empirically – aspects of pleasure, performance, politics and power relations, embodiment, selfhood, social relations and the intersections between leisure and work – offer much to these other areas of enquiry.

The articles published in this special issue go some way to addressing these issues, particularly in relation to young people. The contributors demonstrate how people may accept and take up the dominant assumptions and concepts about idealised selves and bodies expressed in digital technologies but also how users may resist these assumptions or seek to re-invent them. As such, this special issue represents a major step forward in promoting a focus on the digital in leisure studies, working towards generating a lively leisure studies that can make sense of the constantly changing worlds of lively devices and lively data.

Review of Social Media for Academics

I have written many times on this blog about my own experiences of using social media and other digital tools for academic work and my research focusing on how other academics are doing this.

One of the people I have encountered along the way is Mark Carrigan, an early career British sociologist. Appropriately enough, we first met on Twitter a few years ago, around the time I began experimenting with various digital tools for professional purposes. Since then, we have had many discussions there and on other online forums, as well as by email, about using social media in universities (and a couple of in-person meetings as well). Mark has now written a book on Social Media for Academics. It is the first book I know of to present a ‘how-to’ manual combined with reflections on the wider implications of  academic social media engagement.

Mark is a great example of someone who has strategically used social media while still in the very early stages of his career (completing his doctorate) to create a high profile for his work. He has now built on this experience not only to work in various positions involving promoting academic journals, departments and organisations, but to produce this book. In its chapters, Mark employs a casual, chatty style to painlessly introduce readers to the art of academic social media.

The book is distinctive because Mark’s sociological training allows him to contextualise the social, cultural and political implications of academic social media use. Yes, he offers  a multitude of helpful tips and advice about how best to communicate online, what platforms and tools are the most effective, how to develop your own voice, how online engagement helps in promoting one’s research and reaching wider audiences outside academia, building networks, curating interesting material you have found on the internet, finding time to use social media and so on. But there are also reflections offered on what academic social media means for professional identities and for academic work in general. In addition there are many pithy remarks drawing on Mark’s observations, for example, of the awkwardness that sometimes accompanies the experience of colleagues meeting in the flesh after having developed a hitherto purely online relationship, or the potential pitfalls of live-tweeting conferences or writing a tweet or blog post in haste and anger that then becomes widely circulated well after the initial irritation has subsided.

This book is highly recommended for higher degree students and faculty staff members who are interested in the possibilities of academic social media for both research and teaching, as well as researchers interested in future directions for the university workplace and academic identities.


Pregnancy apps and gender stereotypes

Pregnant women and those experiencing the early years of motherhood have used online forums for many years to share experiences and seek information. Now there are hundreds of apps that have been designed for similar purposes. As part of an integrated research program looking at apps and other digital media for pregnancy and parenting, I have been researching these apps using several approaches. In a survey of 410 Australian women who were pregnant or who had given birth in the past three years, I found that almost three-quarters had used at least one pregnancy app, while half of the women who already had children reported using a parenting app (see here for an open access report on this survey and here for a journal article about it).

With Gareth Thomas from Cardiff University, I have also conducted a critical analysis of the content of pregnancy apps themselves. This involved analysing all pregnancy-related apps offered in the two major app stores, the Apple App Store and Google Play. We examined the app descriptions, looking for how the developers marketed their apps and what they offered. See here and here for articles that have been published from this analysis.

This study found that the apps designed for pregnant women represent pregnancy as a state in which women must maintain a high degree of vigilance over their own bodies and that of their foetuses. Many apps promoted this level of self-monitoring, often seeking to render the practices aesthetically-pleasing by using beautiful images of foetuses or allowing women to take ‘belfies’ (belly selfies) and share these on social media.

Among the most surprising of our findings were the large numbers of pregnancy-related games designed for entertainment. These include pregnancy pranks such as fake foetal ultrasounds to fool people into thinking someone is pregnant. We also found many games for little girls that are on the market. The encourage girls to give pregnant women ‘make-overs’ so that they will ‘feel more confident’ and look beautiful, ready for the birth. Some even let players perform a caesarean section on the characters, who remain glamorous and serene even on the operating table. The types of messages about pregnancy and childbirth that are promoted to their young female users are troubling.

Other apps are directed at men who are becoming fathers, although there were far fewer of these apps compared with those for pregnant women. We noticed from our analysis of these apps that even though quite a few of them are marketed as being written ‘by men, for men’, they typically portray the father as a bumbling fool, who requires simplistic or jokey information to keep him interested in the impending birth of his child. Men are advised not to stare at attractive women and to constantly reassure their partners that they find them attractive. Foetuses are compared to beer bottles so that men can learn about foetal development in supposedly unthreatening ways.

Our overall finding, therefore, is the highly stereotypical gendered representations of pregnant women and expectant fathers in these apps. Women are encouraged to use apps to achieve the ideal of the self-monitoring ‘good mother’, closely tracking their bodies because they have their foetus’s best interests at heart in every action they take. They are expected to celebrate their pregnancy and changing bodies – there is little room for ambivalence. Their male partners, on the other hand, are assumed to be uninterested and to require nudging to act in a supportive role to their partners.  And little girls are encouraged to accept and perpetuate the ‘yummy mummy’ stereotype in playing the pregnancy games that are marketed to them, and to view caesarean sections as a quick and easy way to give birth.

Living Digital Data research program

People’s encounters and entanglements with the personal digital data that they generate is a new and compelling area of research interest in this age of the ascendancy of digital data. Members of the public are now called upon to engage with a variety of forms of information about themselves and to confront the complexities of how these details are used by others. Personal digital data assemblages are configured as human bodies, digital devices, code, data, time and space come together.


Personal digital data assemblages smartart

Personal digital data assemblages


Over the past few years I have been researching the social aspects of personal digital data: how people understand and conceptualise these data, how they use their data, what people know about where their personal data go and how their data are used by second and third parties.I have analysed the metaphors that are used to describe digital data, the politics of digital data, the types of data that are collected by apps and self-tracking devices, how people use these software and devices and how personal digital data are materialised, or rendered into visualisations or three-dimensional objects. I have sought to theorise the ontology of personal digital data, drawing particularly sociomaterialism, feminist technoscience, cultural geography and sensory studies. (See My Recent Publications for further details.)

I am bringing these research questions together under a program that I have named ‘Living Digital Data’. This title builds on my conceptualisation of digital data as ‘lively’ in a number of ways.



Lively data smartart

Lively Data



The first element of the vitality of digital data relates to the ways in which they are generated and what happens thereafter. The personal digital information that is constantly generated contributes to data assemblages that are heterogeneous and dynamic, their character changing as more data points are added and others removed. Digital data may be described as having their own social lives as they circulate in the digital data economy and are purposed and repurposed. Second, digital data constitute forms of knowledge about human (and nonhuman) life itself and hence possess another type of vitality. Third, personal digital data have impacts on people’s lives, shaping the decisions and actions that people make and those that other people make about them.  The profiles constructed from these data can influence decisions about the opportunities people have to travel, access employment, credit or insurance, the people that they meet on online dating sites, the knowledges that they hold about themselves and their bodies and those of intimate others. Finally, personal digital data are forms of livelihoods, contributing to the commodification and capitalisation of information. Indeed, they may be described as a form of biocapital, which possesses many forms of value beyond the personal: for research, commercial, security, managerial and governmental agencies.

This approach recognises the entanglements of personal digital data assemblages with human action. Not only are personal digital data assemblages partly comprised of information about human action, but their materialisations are also the products of human action, and these materialisations can influence future human action.

Rather than refer to data literacy or data management skills, I take up the term ‘data sense’ to encapsulate a broader meaning of ‘data sense’ that includes human senses (sight, sound, touch, smell and taste) and how these are part of people’s responses to data and also acknowledges the role played by digital sensors in the act of ‘sense-making’; or coming to terms with digital data.


Data sense smartart

Data Sense


Interesting HCI research on self-tracking: a reading list

In a recent blog post, I published a reading list of critical social research into self-tracking. And in another recent post, I discussed what I saw as the intersections of digital sociology and human-computer interaction (HCI) research. I argued that researchers in each approach should pay attention to what the others are doing, as there are many shared interests.

In this post, I present a reading list of what I (as sociologist) have chosen to designate as ‘interesting’ HCI research on the same phenomenon. This is based on what I consider ‘interesting’ – studies that go beyond design or technical features of self-tracking technologies to address how people use them and incorporate the data into their everyday lives.

There is a wealth of HCI research on self-tracking. HCI researchers have published earlier and more often on self-tracking compared to sociologists and other social researchers. This is largely due to their publishing conventions, in which peer-reviewed conference papers have the status of journal articles, and allow people to publish their research much more quickly. Probably because they are located within the world of digital technology design, HCI researchers devoted their attention much earlier than social scientists to what was initially (and sometimes still) called ‘lifelogging’ and how digital devices were used by practitioners.

Some of the research below takes an explicitly critical or reflective approach to self-tracking – although I have found that this is quite rare in HCI, where the ‘persuasive computing’ approach dominates in research on this topic. A few articles report on speculative design approaches or ways of materialising data that are innovative. Others simply offer some interesting material on how and why people are engaging in self-tracking.

Barrass S. (2016) Diagnosing blood pressure with Acoustic Sonification singing bowls. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 85: 68-71.

Choe EK, Lee NB, Lee B, Pratt W and Kientz JA. (2014) Understanding quantified-selfers’ practices in collecting and exploring personal data. Proceedings of the 32nd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’14). Toronto: ACM Press, 1143-1152.

Choe EK, Lee NB and Schraefel M. (2015) Revealing visualization insights from Quantified-Selfers’ personal data presentations. Computer Graphics and Applications 35: 28-37.

Cuttone A, Petersen MK and Larsen JE. (2014) Four data visualization heuristics to facilitate reflection in personal informatics. Universal Access in Human-Computer Interaction. Design for All and Accessibility Practice. Heraklion: Springer, 541-552.

Doherty AR, Caprani N, Conaire CÓ, Kalnikaite V, Gurrin C, Smeaton AF and O’Connor NE. (2011) Passively recognising human activities through lifelogging. Computers in Human Behavior 27: 1948-1958.

Doherty AR, Pauly-Takacs K, Caprani N, Gurrin C, Moulin CJA, O’Connor NE and Smeaton AF. (2012) Experiences of aiding autobiographical memory using the SenseCam. Human–Computer Interaction 27: 151-174.

Elsden C, Kirk D, Selby M and Speed C. (2015) Beyond personal informatics: designing for experiences with data. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing System (CHI ’15). Seoul: ACM Press, 2341-2344.

Elsden C, Kirk DS and Durrant AC. (2015) A quantified past: toward design for remembering with personal informatics. Human–Computer Interaction online first: 1-40.

Epstein D, Cordeiro F, Bales E, Fogarty J and Munson S. (2014) Taming data complexity in lifelogs: exploring visual cuts of personal informatics data. Proceedings of the 2014 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (DIS ’14). Vancouver: ACM Press, 667-676.

Epstein DA, Ping A, Fogarty J and Munson SA. (2015) A lived informatics model of personal informatics. Proceedings of the 2015 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp ’15). Osaka: ACM Press, 731-742.

Fan C, Forlizzi J and Dey A. (2012) A spark of activity: exploring informative art as visualization for physical activity. Proceedings of the 2012 ACM Conference on Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp ’12). Pittsburgh: ACM Press, 81-84.

Gaver WW, Bowers J, Boehner K, Boucher A, Cameron DWT, Hauenstein M, Jarvis N and Pennington S. (2013) Indoor weather stations: investigating a ludic approach to environmental HCI through batch prototyping. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13). Paris: ACM Press, 3451-3460.

Grönvall E and Verdezoto N. (2013) Beyond self-monitoring: Understanding non-functional aspects of home-based healthcare technology. Proceedings of the ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp ’13). Zurich: ACM Press, 587-596.

Hoyle R, Templeman R, Anthony D, Crandall D and Kapadia A. (2015) Sensitive lifelogs: a privacy analysis of photos from wearable cameras. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’ 15). ACM Press, 1645-1648.

Huang D, Tory M, Aseniero BA, Bartram L, Bateman S, Carpendale S, Tang A and Woodbury R. (2015) Personal visualization and personal visual analytics. Visualization and Computer Graphics 21: 420-433.

Kalnikaite V, Sellen A, Whittaker S and Kirk D. (2010) Now let me see where I was: understanding how lifelogs mediate memory. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’10). Atlanta: ACM Press, 2045-2054.

Khot R, Hjorth L and Mueller FF. (2014) Understanding physical activity through 3D printed material artifacts. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’14). Toronto: ACM Press, 3835-3844.

Khot R, Lee J, Munz H, Aggarwal D and Mueller F. (2014) Tastybeats: making mocktails with heartbeats. Designing Interactive Futures. Vancouver: ACM Press, 467-470.

Khot RA, Pennings R and Mueller FF. (2015) EdiPulse: supporting physical activity with chocolate printed messages. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’15). Seoul: ACM Press, 1391-1396.

Khovanskaya V, Baumer EP, Cosley D, Voida S and Gay G. (2013) Everybody knows what you’re doing: a critical design approach to personal informatics. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13). Paris: ACM Press, 3403-3412.

Lawson S, Kirman B, Linehan C, Feltwell T and Hopkins L. (2015) Problematising upstream technology through speculative design: the case of quantified cats and dogs. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems (CHI ’15). ACM Press, 2663-2672.

Lazar A, Koehler C, Tanenbaum J and Nguyen DH. (2015) Why we use and abandon smart devices. Proceedings of the ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp ’15). Osaka: ACM Press, 635-646.

Lee M-H, Cha S and Nam T-J. (2015) Patina engraver: visualizing activity logs as patina in fashionable trackers. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing System (CHI ’15). Seoul: ACM Press, 1173-1182.

Li I, Dey AK and Forlizzi J. (2011) Understanding my data, myself: supporting self-reflection with ubicomp technologies. Proceedings of the International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp ’11). Beijing: ACM, 405-414.

Liu W, Ploderer B and Hoang T. (2015) In bed with technology: challenges and opportunities for sleep tracking. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Australian Special Interest Group for Computer Human Interaction (OzCHI ’15). ACM Press, 142-151.

Mathur A, Van den Broeck M, Vanderhulst G, Mashhadi A and Kawsar F. (2015) Tiny habits in the giant enterprise: understanding the dynamics of a quantified workplace. Proceedings of the 2015 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp ’15). Osaka: ACM Press, 577-588.

Nissen B and Bowers J. (2015) Data-Things: digital fabrication situated within participatory data translation activities. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’15). Seoul: ACM Press, 2467-2476.

Oh J and Lee U. (2015) Exploring UX issues in Quantified Self technologies. Eighth International Conference on Mobile Computing and Ubiquitous Networking. Hakodate, Japan: IEEE, 53-59.

Ploderer B, Smith W, Howard S, Pearce J and Borland R. (2012) Things you don’t want to know about yourself: ambivalence about tracking and sharing personal information for behaviour change. Proceedings of the 24th Australian Computer-Human Interaction Conference (OzCHI ’12). Melbourne: ACM Press, 489-492.

Purpura S, Schwanda V, Williams K, Stubler W and Sengers P. (2011) Fit4life: the design of a persuasive technology promoting healthy behavior and ideal weight. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Vancouver: ACM, 423-432.

Rooksby J, Rost M, Morrison A and Chalmers MC. (2014) Personal tracking as lived informatics. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Toronto: ACM, 1163-1172.

Snow S, Buys L, Roe P and Brereton M. (2013) Curiosity to cupboard: self reported disengagement with energy use feedback over time. Proceedings of the 25th Australian Computer-Human Interaction Conference: Augmentation, Application, Innovation, Collaboration. Adelaide: ACM, 245-254.

Stusak S. (2015) Exploring the potential of physical visualizations. Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction (TEI ’15). Stanford, CA: ACM Press, 437-440.

Stusak S, Tabard A, Sauka F, Khot RA and Butz A. (2014) Activity sculptures: exploring the impact of physical visualizations on running activity. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics 20: 2201-2210.

Whooley M, Ploderer B and Gray K. (2014) On the integration of self-tracking data amongst Quantified Self members. Proceedings of the 28th International BCS Human Computer Interaction Conference (HCI ’14). Southport, UK: BCS, 151-160.

Williams K. (2013) The weight of things lost: self-knowledge and personal informatics. Personal Informatics.  <; accessed 12 May 2014.

New project on fitness self-tracking apps and websites

My colleague Glen Fuller and I have started a new project on people’s use of fitness self-tracking apps and platforms (such as Strava and RunKeeper). We are interviewing people who are active users of these devices, seeking to identify why they have chosen to take up these practices, what apps and platforms they use, how they use them and what they do with the personal data that are generated from these technologies. We are interested in exploring issues around identity and self-representation, concepts of health, fitness and the body, privacy, surveillance and data practices and cultures.

The city in which we live and work, Canberra, is an ideal place to conduct this project, as there are many ardent cyclists and runners living here.

See here for our project’s website and further details of the study.

Wikipedia for academics

Academics have traditionally been somewhat suspicious of the hugely popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia as a credible source of scholarly information. They are concerned about the validity and reliability of the information presented, and the fact that entries are open to editing by any comer. Few academics thus far have contributed to Wikipedia as content generators or editors, although they admit to using it regularly, and they know that their students constantly refer to it.

Given that Wikipedia is now the most visited online reference work, surely it is time that more academics played a role in shaping its content? It should be noted that Wikipedia has changed in its approach to content generation over the years. A sophisticated quality control process is now in place by which entries are created, accepted and edited. Wikipedia entries must now be correctly referenced with credible and reputable sources. Although the entries do not have contributors’ names directly appended, it is easy to see who has contributed by clicking on the ‘edit’ button, as well as to view details of the edits they have made.

An increasing number of libraries, art galleries, archives and museums are using the ‘Wikipedian in Residence’ idea to promote their holdings. Under this scheme, a person experienced in editing and creating Wikipedia entries spends a period of time (several weeks or more) at the institution to train staff members in the art. Institutions that have taken advantage of this scheme include the august British Museum, the Palace of Versailles, the Museu Picasso, the Smithsonian Institution, and here in Australia, the State Library of New South Wales.

This seems to me to be a good idea for universities to adopt. If students and academics are regularly using Wikipedia, then they should also learn about how to contribute to the body of knowledge in this platform. For academics, this means that rather than simply sitting back and letting others create content on a topic in which they may be particularly expert, they can take an active approach and shape the content themselves. The entry can be revised and added to at any time, making it responsive to changes in the field about which one is writing.

Those academics who have worked on entries are often positive about the experience. One, Martin Poulter, argues that writing for Wikipedia has taught him how to write about academic subjects in an accessible manner. He gives examples of using Wikipedia writing for students as a means of allowing them to engage in online publication, and notes that Wikipedia entries often shape public debate because they are so widely consulted. He sees Wikipedia as an ‘online community for researchers, educators and students to take part in’.

I have created my own Wikipedia entry on the topic of digital sociology. This entry is now the first hyperlink to appear when the term ‘digital sociology’ is input in a search engine. It was not a particularly onerous task, once I had become familiar with the protocol.

Wikipedia provides clear outlines for how to create and edit entries. Nonetheless, providing training programs for academics by those experienced in creating Wikipedia content would make the process far easier. Some academics have held Wikipedia ‘hack days’ or ‘editathons’, gathering together to work on entries as a group. In the UK the organisation Wikimedia UK offers assistance for such training and events.

Engaging in Wikipedia content creation or editing can be a form of political resistance to marginalisation. Women contributors are far in the minority in Wikipedia, as are entries about high achieving women, and it has been contended that existing entries about women are deleted or severely edited disproportionately compared to those about men. There is clearly a ‘politics of Wikipedia’ involving the same types of marginalisation of and discrimination against less powerful social groups that occurs in other areas of social life, despite the platform’s rhetoric about open collaboration and democratic participation. Some feminist academics have taken up the gauntlet to redress this imbalance, organising mass editing days as part of the ‘Storming Wikipedia’ project, in which female students and academics work together to create entries about influential women.

Participation in the dynamic forum that is Wikipedia, therefore, can take many forms. As an academic (or student) one can engage in active content creation as part of shaping the public discourses on one’s chosen topic. Social researchers can also use the platform as a source of research data, investigating the ways in which knowledge is created and contested as part of the process of Wikipedia content creation and editing, the types of content that shape Wikipedia entries or how people respond to Wikipedia as a source of information. Surprising little critical social research thus far has been conducted on Wikipedia — there seems great scope for further investigation. More radically, contributing to Wikipedia can constitute a resistant political act.

Digital sociology, public sociology, private sociology

Today the British Sociological Association’s Digital Sociology study group is holding its first event in London. Sadly I won’t be able to attend, living as I do on the other side of the world. However I will be following proceedings with interest, via Twitter and any blog posts that may result from the event.

The meeting will discuss the topic of ‘What is digital sociology?’ I have recently contributed to this debate in various forums: on this blog, in a collection of writings based on the blog that I put together and self-archived, in a preprint of a book chapter (available here) and in a Wikipedia entry that I wrote on digital sociology. I am developing these nascent ideas further in an introductory book on digital sociology that will be published by Routledge.

One aspect of digital sociology about which I am currently writing is the challenges for sociologists of the new digital technologies. In the chapter referred to above I have started to discuss these issues, and will do so in expanded form in the new book.

Several interesting articles have been published in recent years by sociologists about the implications for sociology itself of the affordances of digital media. Digital media technologies and data are social artefacts and thus are obvious sources of research for sociologists. Not only that, they allow sociologists to engage in public sociology – communicating their ideas to public audiences outside the academy — more easily than ever before, through the use of open-access forums and social media.

But digital media also contribute to what I am calling for the moment ‘private sociology’, or the professional personae and lived working lives of the academics themselves who use them. As sociologists such as Roger Burrows, Mike Savage and Dave Beer have pointed out, such platforms as digital citation indices has resulted in sociologists’ (and other academics’) professional worth and accomplishments becoming ever more metricised and scrutinised. Those academics who fail to engage in public sociology via digital media may find themselves disadvantaged in their private sociology lives. Yet many academics feel confronted by what they perceive as the technical challenges of learning to use digital media for academic purposes or the time commitments involved to blog or tweet or follow others’ blogs or tweets (an issue that constantly is raised whenever I present workshops on social media for academics).

Those sociologists who do take up the gauntlet and actively use social and other digital media may find themselves confronted with ‘the politics of circulation’ (Beer’s phrase), or the re-use and transformation of their intellectual property via social media in ways to which they are not accustomed. Here again there may be implications for their ‘private sociology’ lives: how sociologists perceive their work and what they think about its use by others in non-academic forums.

Sociologists’ and other academics’ working lives are also being challenged by the introduction of massive online open access courses (MOOCs) and by the open access movement, provoking universities and scholars to rethink teaching, learning and publication traditions.

More broadly there is a much bigger question of how sociology as a discipline might be transformed by digital technologies and data. Burrows and Savage have contended that in the face of the digital data industry that has developed to harvest and analyse these data, sociologists may find themselves sidelined as pre-eminent empirical social researchers. Another issue is to what extent sociologists are able to make use of digital data and analyse the ever-changing platforms and devices of Web 2.0 and the emergent Web 3.0? Susan Halford and Mike Savage have pointed out sociologists may need to become more technically proficient or alternatively collaborate with computer scientists to fully understand new digital media.

There is much here to discuss, and I look forward to the proceedings of the BSA Digital Sociology group meeting. 

Towards a critical sociology of digital health technologies

A recent research interest of mine is the emergence of ‘digital health’ (otherwise known as Health 2.0, Medicine 2.0, eHealth or mHealth) as central to healthcare and public health policies in developed countries. Digital health technologies include using mobile wireless devices and social media to gather data on health-related behaviours or to encourage people to take up health promoting behaviours, using Web 2.0 devices to seek out information on health-related matters and to contribute to this information, telemedicine, digital medical records and disease-monitoring systems.

There are now many articles in the news media and medical and public health literature that enthusiastically promote digital health as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘disruptive’ to traditional approaches to healthcare and public health. As a sociologist, I have sought to interrogate the assumptions underlying discourses on digital health technologies and to identify the social, cultural and political dimensions of the digital health phenomenon. I have recently written several academic pieces about digital health technologies, as well as a number of blog posts.

Two articles have focused on their use as part of health promotion, quantifying the body and self-tracking (see here and here). Another article looks at the concept of what I have termed ‘the digitally engaged patient’ in relation to the employment of digital technologies in recent telemedicine initiatives . I have also written about the commodification of patient experience data uploaded to patient support websites and the use of Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory to theorise digital health. The most recent piece returns to the subject of what I call ‘digitised health promotion’.

One of my central arguments is that despite the representation of technologies as inert, neutral objects participating in the collection of data in the interests of health promotion and medical self-care, from a critical perspective such objects may be viewed as actively shaping the subjects/bodies of those who use them. Technologies discipline and order bodies in certain ways, just as bodies discipline and order technologies. They are not politically neutral, but rather are implicated in a dense web of power relations. Using medical and other technologies to peer inside the body is part of a mentality that assumes that more information about the body is always better.

There are a number of central themes that come together in the critical sociology of digital health phenomenon. These include examination of the technologies themselves that are part of Web 2.0 and the Internet of Things, including ubiquitous computing (devices that are mobile and wireless), wearable devices and embedded sensors in devices, as well as the ‘big data’ that are produced from digital technologies. Other themes are the emphasis on personal responsibility for self-care and self-monitoring in telemedical and health promotion programs, the withdrawal of the state from alleviating socioeconomic disadvantage and the promise of control over the body, disease and expenditure that is regularly articulated in discourses on digital technologies. Also important are the contributions of the discourse of ‘healthism’, or the assumption that good health should be privileged over other priorities in people’s lives, and the lure of techno-utopian and data-utopian discourses generally that promote digital technologies as the means by which good health and financial savings may be achieved. Surveillance, whether voluntary, imposed or coercive, is another central dimension of using the new digital health technologies.

Now that computers are wearable upon and can even be inserted into the body or ingested as pills, and are used as part of medical care and preventive health strategies, a new set of possibilities and limitations have been generated in relation to the ways that we think about and use these technologies. I argue that digital health discourses work to draw attention from the social determinants of health and support victim-blaming of those who are ill or viewed as not successfully managing health risks. They promote the myth that ‘clean’, ‘controlled’ technologies allow containment of the ‘messiness’ of human disease and bodily disorder.

Furthermore, digital health technologies discipline bodies in certain ways and configure a set of obligations concerning acting upon the data that they generate. Privacy and discrimination issues also need to be identified and acknowledged, given that digital monitoring devices potentially allow healthcare providers, health promoters, employers and health insurance companies to gain access to data on users’ bodily functions and activities in fine-grained detail. Greater attention needs to be paid to the moral, political and ethical dimensions of the digital health phenomenon.

Theorising mHealth and the quantified self

I have published several posts on this blog now about mHealth and the quantified self (see them here). I have also written two scholarly publications that have been published in academic journals discussing this topic in greater depth. In the first article I looked at how theories of surveillance society and the cyborg body could be applied to understanding the use of digital health technologies as they are used for health promotion, and also discussed privacy, intimacy and ethical issues (see here for details of the first article, the full version of which is open access).

The latest article is entitled ‘Quantifying the body: monitoring, performing and measuring health in the age of mHealth technologies’, published in Critical Public Health (see here for details). It builds upon the previous article by bringing in discussion of the quantified self movement. Here is the abstract:

Mobile and wearable digital devices and related Web 2.0 apps and social media tools offer new ways of monitoring, measuring and representing the human body. They are capable of producing detailed biometric data that may be collected by individuals and then shared with others. Health promoters, like many medical and public health professionals, have been eager to seize the opportunities they perceive for using what have been dubbed ‘mHealth’ (‘mobile health’) technologies to promote the public’s health. These technologies are also increasingly used by lay people outside the professional sphere of health promotion as part of voluntary self-tracking strategies (referred to by some as ‘the quantified self’). In response to the overwhelmingly positive approach evident in the health promotion and self-tracking literature, this article adopts a critical sociological perspective to identify some of the social and cultural meanings of self-tracking practices via digital devices. Following an overview of the technologies currently available for such purposes I move on to discuss how they may contribute to concepts of health, embodiment and identity. The discussion focuses particularly on how these technologies promote techno-utopian, enhancement and healthist discourses and the privileging of the visual and the metric in representing the body via these devices.

My current research is moving from a focus on health promotion to the construction of patienthood in digital health discourses. I’m looking at how patients are being encouraged to engage in self-monitoring and self-care activities to reduce healthcare costs, and the commodification of patients’ accounts of their experiences of illness and healthcare on social media platforms designed to elicit patient opinion.