This is a post I posted to the Social Informatics Blog on 3.27.12:
A few months ago, in an effort to start eating better, I began using an iPhone app to count calories. For four months, I diligently entered every precisely portioned amount of food I consumed into my smartphone. I was also running a lot. I kept track of how far I was running, for how long, at what pace, etc. For the most part I engaged in this bookkeeping adventure alone– praising myself when I landed below my weekly calorie goal and berating myself when I didn’t. I soon realized, however, that there was a whole world of people out there doing the same thing I was and that we formed this thing called ‘the quantified self movement.’
I quickly learned that self-tracking, bio-data or personal analytics, as it is sometimes called, is a growing area of interest for smartphone users, data-philes, journalists, marketers, the tech industry, the health, industry, etc. There are articles circulating from the Economist on the topic, there was a 2012 SXSW competition using personal data generated by BodyMedia, a TED talk on the subject, websites, a Facebook page and daily Twitter conversations all about the quantified self. Also, there’s an annual international conference dedicated to understanding and capitalizing on the quantified self. It’s embarking on its third year (the first two were sold out).
One of the founders of the quantified self-movement, Gary Wolf, suggests that bio-tracking devices and the social practices that accompany them help to change our sense of self in the world. In his TED talk, he says that these tools are mirrors that tell us about who we are and that they should be used help us improve ourselves. “They are tools for self-discovery, self-awareness and self-knowledge,” he says. Used in this way, according to Wolf, we also see our “operational center, our consciousness and moral compass” more clearly.
This is true, of course, of all media. Facebook, and before it, TV, radio, magazines, theater, literature, oral histories, hieroglyphics, etc. have always shown us who we are by showing us abstracted depictions of ourselves. These media portrayed the peasants, the aristocracy, the moral citizen and the outcast. The obvious difference is that over time, mediated depictions of ourselves have become more and more individualistic and personal.
As months went on in my own self-tracking experience, I began to grow tired of the constant bookkeeping. As I entered my default breakfast into the program morning after morning on the bus ride to school, I began to realize that I was becoming somewhat obsessed with life decisions that amounted to very small amounts of food. However, I also noticed I was changing my life to maximize exercise opportunities whenever I could. As I became more and more obsessed with the numbers my iPhone app was generating every day, it seemed I was making healthier life choices. In addition, I realized that I was gaining more and more emotional satisfaction, happiness and excitement from the hobby. I started feeling like I was becoming hedonistically yet healthily addicted to consuming the numbers my life was producing.
The student of socio-technical studies inside of me couldn’t get over the contradictory feelings I was having about all of this. I wanted to understand it better. After bludgeoning many of my loved ones and friends by imposing lengthy conversations on these topics and thinking and reading about the role numbers play in our lives (and have only played for a relatively short part of human history) (oh, and I should mention that I’m enrolled in my first statistics course ever at the moment. ☺). It occurred to me that the thrill derived by self-tracking behaviors can be traced back to fundamental pedagogical advice Plato gave to Socrates: “know thyself.” Plato advised Socrates that only after one knows himself, can he then begin trying to know “obscure” things. Furthermore, then one also has a better platform from which to understand others and human beings in general. The numbers, then, that our bodies create – like all previous forms of media— are a part of a fundamental quest for humans to help know ourselves better.
So, if it is the case that we use these new biometric tools to extend, yet again, our quest to know ourselves, as a society, we land in one of two places. 1.) after thousands of years we still do not know ourselves but we are now closer to doing so or 2.) we may need to realize that we can never know ourselves completely through fixed abstractions like numbers (or media). Personally, I’m partial to the later conclusion.
Drawing on media materiality scholarship, I would argue that each mediated reflection of ourselves has its own advantages and shortcomings in its ability to show us who we are. Numbers, offer us a clean, neat, easily digestible packet of information about who we are. I’ve seen many self-quantifiers refer to numbers as beautiful. My heart rate is 107/64. I consumed 1543 net calories yesterday. I walked 2.1 miles, mowed my yard for 33 minutes and did yoga for 60 minutes. These data are precise, clean, digestible.
What numbers do not- and cannot- capture are the chaos that is an inherent part of the human condition. Humans are messy. Emotions drive us to do things we would never expect. We dance, cry, laugh, sing, kiss and fight when we least expect it. The unanticipated invitation for beers outside in March in the warm sun (when the plan was to do statistics homework in the library) is memorable where the bar graph on my iPhone that tells me I’ve met my weekly caloric intake for the past 4 weeks in a row is not. These unknowable surprises, one might argue, are the most beautiful aspects of being human and are only weakly depicted through abstracting them into fixed mediated form (especially numerical form).
I think numbers are helpful. However, I hope there is never a time when that unanticipated invitation for beers outside in March comes and I decide to go solely based on how those beers will impact the weekly bar graph on my iPhone.
Travis Ross, a graduate student in IU’s department of Telecommunications spoke to an audience of students and faculty today about his research on how social norms influence people in games. He says this approach is important because game designers often do not think in terms of social norms. He asks whether game designers can use social norms in their game designs to influence gamer behavior. Perhaps social norms could influence gamers to behave prosocially and enable game designers to increase their profit on their games.
Jared Lorince, a graduage student in the Cognitive Science department, also presented his work on information seeking behaviors. He asks whether the foraging seeking behavior of animals might inform the ways in which we search for information online. He says that especially exploratory search, where people don’t have one thing they’re looking for, can be informed by this type of research. The aggregation of people’s trajectories through the search space can help inform individuals as they set out on exploratory searches.
Katherine Sender, a professor at Penn, visited IU’s Department of Telecommunication today to discuss her new book, The Big Reveal: Makeover Television, Audiences, and the Promise of Transformation. Her work focuses on makeover television shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and What Not to Wear. She says, a true inner self is a concept that is at the heart of an audience analysis of these shows. Being reflexive and recognizing who this inner self is is important to the process of producing ourselves in an “authentic” fashion, Sender says.
Brenda Weber joined professor Sender in discussing her new book, Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity. She suggests that Pimp my Ride has as much gender in it as What Not to Wear. She rejects the notion that makeover shows are simply toxic cultural wastelands. Instead she says they are worthy of in depth analysis because they are “smart, banal & hurtful and lots of interesting elements are built into them.”
Weber suggests that the makeover expresses anxiety about the lack of selfhood. She says there is deep anxiety on a larger social level about the ambiguity of self. The self, she says, is our greatest economic asset. If we make poor choices about the self, we may harm our earning potential. Makeover shows lead us to believe that we have to harness our selves so that we can compete through global networks.
Today in IU’s Department of Telecommunications brownbag series, new professor, Paul Wright discussed his work on males and pornography. Driving his inquiry were questions about whether there has been an increase in % of adult male consumers over time, whether there are reliable demographic predictors for pornography consumption, and whether consumption is correlated with attitudes/behaviors of concern to conservative moralists and/or public health officials?
He noted that historically there have been three perspectives on pornography in the academic literature: libertarian, moralist and feminist. Today there is also a public health perspective which is concerned about the transmission of STIs and unplanned pregnancies. Most of the literature on the soccializing effects of pornography comes from the libertarian and feminist perspectives. There is relatively little from the moralist or public health perspectives.Wright’s work seeks to help fill this void.
Using General Social Survey data Wright asked whether certain demographic and personal identifying variables, help to predict whether males will be more likely to emulate (or learn) behaviors observed in pornography. Theory suggests that there is a general socializing effect of pornograpy.
Wright reports a .3% increase in pornography consumption from 1973 to 2010. Pornography consumption over time, according to GSS data, has remained fairly constant. Religious people view less porn than non-religous, non-whites consume more (though barely more) porn than whites, education today is not a predictor of pornography consumption, according to Writght.
Males who consume pornography, were more likely to use condoms, engage in paid sex behavior, approve of adult premarital and teenage sex, and approve of extramarital sex.
IU Telecommunications graduate student Nicky Lewis discussed her masters thesis today on fantasy sports in the department’s brown bag seminar series. In her talk she said that the number of fantasy sports players is the same as the popluation of Texas. She said, “Fantasy Football is the Dungeons and Dragons for guys who used to beat up the kids who played Dungeons and Dragons.” In her study she asked questions about what motivates people to play fantasy sports. She noted that traits like extraversion, competitiveness, Machiavellianism, sensation-seeking and impulsiveness impact one’s level of participation in fantasy sports. She also noted that people are motivated to play fantasy sports for social reasons, competitive reasons, social-identification and financial gain. Her study involved doing a survey of 457 people. 177 of those participated in fantasy football. She found that fantasy football players are more competitive and less impulsive than those who did not play.
Evan L. Frederick presented his work on Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) blogging. He found that most MMA blog users were male, white and had at least a college degree. Blogs were used to find information about fighters and fights that they couldn’t get elsewhere. One of the major reasons for consuming this content is to feel associated with a particular group (athletes and fans). Users also reported using blogs to engage in conversations with others in the group. If one considers MMA to be a niche sport, Evan suggests that MMA blog users could be similar to those of other niche sports in that users go to blogs in order to get information about the sport and athletes since it does not receive much traditional mass media coverage.
In Erick Janssen’s brown bag discussion in the Department of Telecommunications today he introduced the Kinsey Institute to our band of communications and media scholars and students. Located in Morrison Hall on the Bloomington campus, the Kinsey Institute is an international center for the study of human sex and sexuality.
According to Janssen, there is a still void in academic research when it comes to work on emotions and sexual arousal. This, Janssen says has more to do with culture than it does science. He says the Kinsey Institute’s grants have been voted on and debated in Congress many times. It is a challenge to maintain funding and convince politicians and administrators that sex research is important, Janssen says. Part of his job is knowing how to negotiate doing research and pleasing the NIH. He says, if you put the phrase ‘sexual arousal’ in a grant title, you will not get funded by the NIH. NSF has also told him that they are not that interested in sexual arousal research. He has had to figure out how to still do his work while also maintaining a favorable relationship with these governmental entities. Janssen says that in his experience this is a particularly American problem as he did not have face this challenge in his work in the Netherlands.
Interestingly, Janssen has noticed that the pornography that they often use as stimuli in research studies has had increasingly weaker affects on the sexual arousal of research subjects over the past 15-2-0 years. He says researchers do not yet understand why this is the case. It may be that the context surrounding the sexual experience is becoming more arousing to research subjects (often undergraduates).
Graduate student Lelia Samson also discussed her research at the Kinsey Institiute and informed the group that there are funding opportunites for graduate students who are interested in doing interdiciplinary research on sex at IU.
Last Friday we graduate students in IU’s Department of Telecommunications were spoiled as famous media scholars Henry Jenkins and Mimi Ito treated us to one of the most amazing brownbag discussions I’ve witnessed. Though they had events planned across campus all day, including individual talks in the afternoon, they sat together in the morning in front of a packed room full of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and even some staff members and discussed the series of events leading them to accomplish the professional successes both of them have had. Both Mimi and Henry are self-described outsiders in various institutions they’ve worked in in the past and enjoy the freedom that they have now to do work without worrying much about pressures that institutional or diciplinary forces can often apply. They cautioned us though, suggesting that the path they took is not necessarily for everyone. Ito, especially, offered great advice stating that when you go outside of the safety of the usual academic professional trajectory, you must be very careful to maintain professional relationships. They are what sustains you, she says. She pointed to the importance of building a solid, widespread and diverse professional social network. Ito also advised us to be helpful and participate in conversations where you have something to add. Being nice to people is important, according to Jenkins, especially when you’re making public comments.
In short, hearing about their careers and philosophies about managing life and work pressures was reinvigorating. They are both surprisingly down to earth, helpful and it was easy to see from them that they are just being themselves, doing what they love to do and doing it very, very well.