On the pros and cons of self-tracking (first thoughts)

Self-tracking involves the regular monitoring and recording of aspects of behaviour, typically with the intention of reviewing the information recorded to reflect on and improve that aspect of behaviour.

The most common type of self-tracking involves monitoring levels of physical activity, practiced by 1/3 people according to some surveys (1), facilitated through wearable devices and downloadable apps. However, the practice of self-tracking is spreading into many more areas of social life. Lupton (2017) (2)  for example lists 10 discrete areas of individual and social life which people currently track, or have tracking imposed on them. Such areas include health and fitness, education and work, geolocation, and even within the home through the ‘internet of things’.

I’m a bit of a self-tracking fan (I wouldn’t say obsessive) myself: as I outlined in this recent post, I track my finances, running, walking, meditation sessions, and I’ve even tried tracking my sleep; but the main form of tracking (whether I like it or not) surrounds my blogging and wider social media use.

Most fans of self-tracking tend to emphasize the positive role that tracking plays in their lives: casting it as something they consciously choose to do, and something which helps them to reach desirable goals in their lives: greater productivity, a higher savings to expenditure ratio, lower cholesterol and faster track-times, being just a few common goals.

Despite the increase in (and maybe normalization of?) self-tracking, few of us stop to think about how these practices might be affecting the way we see ourselves and the way we relate to others, let alone the deeper social and political consequences of the wide spread adoption of self-tracking in society.

There is a growing body of evidence of there being downsides to self-tracking: people increasingly engage in otherwise irrational actions to ‘game’ self-tracking targets; the inability to meet our targets might lead to emotional negative states; focusing our ‘data selves’ may take us away from a more meaningful, qualitative, grounded ‘lived’ reality; and then there is the well-documented (just think Facebook) possibility that all of the data we collect might just be used by unscrupulous companies, even governments, to manipulate us.

This post is really just a few thoughts on some of the pros and cons of some of the different types self-tracking. Many of these ideas and examples are drawn from Deborah Lupton’s (2017) ‘The Quantified Self’, others from my own experience, and still others from a good old dig around t’internet.

Some of the Benefits of Self-Tracking

Self-tracking enthusiasts (see The Quantified Self Movement as an example) present the practice of self-tracking as something which is motivational, helping them to achieve various life-goals and improve themselves. I’ve experienced this myself: watching my savings grow and my running times come down have given me more of an impetus to literally ‘stay on track’ with these goals.

It’s also just purely quite Interesting to gawp at your self-track data: especially if it’s presented so prettily like it is with ‘Map My Run’. Obviously not everyone’s going to find this interesting, but if it’s your thing, then it’s actually fun!

It can also be social: sharing and commenting on people’s goals creates a community, albeit a community of people with weak ties, and the information gleaned form other people’s data can be useful: I’ve used a few walk/ run routes for own walks/ runs for example.

Self-tracking data can also be used to self-market, depending on your line of work. If you’re in the creative industries, fitness, or self-help industries, then prettily presented data can be used to sell yourself!

The Potential downsides of self-tracking

While self-tracking can help with self-improvement goals, it’s possible that not achieving those goals, or seeing one’s performance going backwards, can induce negative emotional states. Personally, I’ve experienced this to an extent: I’m only really happy viz step or finance goals if I’m ahead of my targets, so I’ve got ‘room to spare’ for example.

Trying to hit one’s self-track targets can also lead to slavish and silly behaviour….. YES, I have walked further than I might do during a housework session or two in order to meet my step goal on some days. It still means I’m doing more exercise, but at the same time it’s ridiculous.

Lupton (2017) recounts one case study of a guy walking around Paris who wanted to go and do the whole day of walking again when he realised he hadn’t recorded it on his walking tracker….

If you’re really into it, then it can also be very time consuming… I must spend at least a couple of hours a month writing up my running and finance self-track progress reports, probably more in fact.

Self-tracking can also take one away from lived reality – this is already happening at the societal level with mass social-media adoption: living for the likes and comments, rather than being in the moment… self-tracking is no different.

Then there’s the question of the V=validity of some of the measurements…. @actifit doesn’t quite record the same number of steps as my other pedometer on my phone, and you (not me!) can game either of them just by shaking them from side to side. A friend of mine told me about the thousands of steps her FitBit had recorded after a presentation evening at her school: she’d basically done 10K claps, or something like that.

Finally, the data I give away could be used to manipulate me at a future date…. I’m fully expecting my step and mile counts to trigger periodic shoe adverts, for example. Then there are the more serious implications of my/ our health and fitness and financial data being used to determine what our insurance premiums should be, whether we should be allowed a loan, or be let out the country (it might come to that!).

Written for educational purposes.


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