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Quantified Selfies


Seth Clifford is on to something with his thoughts about Fitbit fatigue.

For a solid year it never left my side, unless I forgot it (rare), and then I was nearly inconsolable (all those lost steps!). Over time, something changed though; I was more concerned with collecting the data and having it than actually using it. It became a weird anxiety-provoking moment (pat pocket-ok it’s there-whew) that I experienced a few times a day.

I’ve had my own fitbit for a little over a year, too, and while I’ve done the pocket-pat once or twice a day myself, once the fitbit became a part of my routine it has not been much of a stressor. But I’ve never changed the default goal step number of 10,000; never tracked food or water, except at the very beginning; never built a big network of fellow social-steppers. I did, however, have a lovely fun time hooking its data into my Slogger feed and building a nicer sleep visualization than the built-in one. At the same time, however, I don’t know if it’s providing me a lot of value.

Like Seth, I listened to the recent couple of episodes of Back to Work on self-quantification and how it “can goose your mindfulness.” I really enjoy those kinds of discussions; like many data- and technology-oriented interneteers I get a little bit buzzed just thinking about the array of ways we have to gain insight into behavior and habits (As Seth says, “Numbers! Graphs! Yay!”). So in addition to Fitbit, I use Runkeeper to track my workouts, again using Slogger as the collection method to archive that data along with my App.net posts and last.fm listens, as well. All of this is partly just because, well, I can: I get a little bit of basic satisfaction doing these little integrations, tuning the tools and such.

But here’s the problem with collecting all of this stuff: Unless I’m asking questions of that data, it’s mostly just taking up space — cognitive and disk — instead of increasing my self-awareness or mindfulness. The ease of passively quantifying ourselves lets us accumulate data without setting goals or interrogating its meaning to us. At best, that means we get very little value from it; at worst, in the case of a service like Runkeeper or Fitbit we’re feeding information into a big data aggregator whose own monetization intentions are rather less ambiguous1.

Yet the impulse to learn more about myself remains compelling; this is one reason why, despite a healthy sense of skepticism about the quantified self — or at least the un-analyzed quantified self — I’m really interested in Reporter. Made partly by Nicholas Felton, famous for his annual reports and creator of Daytum, Reporter pops up a notification on the iPhone at several random times during the day to ask a handful of questions: What are you doing, where are you, who are you with, etc. While it does produce some numeric data (how many coffees did you have today?) and other information that may be expressed categorically or on a scale (how well did you sleep?), it’s really excellent at qualitative recording, and has a great flexibility for creating new questions. It can ask additional questions when you go to sleep or wake up, too.

Reporter can ask as many or as few questions as you like. The first question I added to Reporter was “Are you engaged in what you’re doing?” This is a prompt for me to think about how well I spend my time in a very general way. Sure, later I could build cross-tabs of that response with where I was or what I was doing (working, not working, etc), but for now it’s just a way to remind me to be thoughtful. The Reporter: Unofficial Survey Question Repository is a great resource for interesting items that users are adding to their surveys, and I love that a lot of them are qualitative and seeking personal insight rather than numbers:

  • What surprised you today?
  • What would you have done differently today?
  • What are you going to focus on today?
  • What are you looking forward to today?

By default, everything you tell Reporter is entirely private, stored on your device. You can optionally export to Dropbox, but there’s no service rolling it all up. So far, I really am happy with the experience and am looking forward to continuing to use it to tell myself a little bit more about myself.

  1. To be fair to Runkeeper and Fitbit, they both offer “pro” or paid services, and I don’t know if these effectively subsidize the free options. But all that activity data — crossed with regional, demographic, consumption and lifestyle information — must create a lot of opportunities for marketing, too. [return]