My Digital Self
For 30 days I tracked my life and put it online for all to see; if I could figure out a way to quantify a facet of my life, it was shared with the world. For 30 days I tried to create the most authentic digital version of myself that I could.
Using "over the counter" consumer products and commercial computer applications, I cobbled together a means of automatically collecting data about myself: distance traveled, quality of sleep, mood, location, etcetera. My goal was to create a system that was massively automated and simple to construct. I needed the tracking to be automated because I knew that I would never be able to develop the necessary habits to record all the data I wanted to collect manually. Besides, exhorting a large portion of my day to data recording would skew my activity levels substantially, altering the vision of self portrayed to the public. I also wanted the setup to be simple to reproduce by anyone who had access to the Internet. All of the apps and hardware I used had to be publicly accessible, and ideally as inexpensive as possible. When I was done, I had an iPhone in my pocket, a small FitBit clip on my pants, and a Jawbone UP bracelet on my left arm. Overall, my new digital attire was rather commonplace, if not inconspicuous.
Artists often look inward for inspiration, using emotions and feelings as subjects for the canvas. My art is no exception. I have always collected bits of my life in boxes—souvenirs, photographs, diaries—and in 2003 I pulled all of these intimate objects out of storage and created a 80 page book entitled The first 22 years. This was my first attempt at exploring identity and the documentation of self. Essentially an autobiography, I created layouts composed of old photographs, memorabilia, journal entries, emails, and any other personal items that I could scan, photograph or document with a computer. The project took the most intimate aspects of my life and reassembled them as a narrative for the public to witness. My life (the good and the bad) was on display for all to see.
As I waded through the memories, I faced two problems with sharing such an intimate version of myself: What was I not willing to share? and what could I share about others? I knew the things I was going to share would make me vulnerable; some of the things I put in the book were secrets I had never told anyone. I also knew that friends and family would see the book, so I had to censor the content based on what I was willing to let them know about myself.
To portray myself through the book meant sharing the lives of others that have affected my life in some way. Putting myself out there, sharing intimate details, potentially facing embarrassment or ridicule, was one thing. But putting other people, whom I cared about, through the same experience was a violation of their trust and privacy. I had to be mindful of what I included about everyone in the book.
Page spreads from "The first 22 years" project.
Page spreads from "The first 22 years" project.
Page spreads from "The first 22 years" project.
Page spreads from "The first 22 years" project.
Page spreads from "The first 22 years" project.
My digital self project was no different. As I began working out methods for collecting data about myself, I had to determine what I wanted to collect and how to display it. If I collected location data, did I really want it shown in real-time on the Internet? As a Masters student, I knew there was the potential for my professors to be looking at what was being posted. If I had class on Wednesday afternoon, did I really want them to see that my actual location was at the mall? If I collected data about my computer use, did I want the world to know how much time I'd wasted on Facebook, or should I just provide the aggregate data and let them know I'd spent 4 hours online that day?
Some data was easy to dismiss: I had a few suggestions from friends to collect data about my bowel movements; while there is certainly an argument for monitoring bathroom activity, I did not feel it was a necessary or prudent metric for the purposes of this installation.
"Media changes the user. With each shift in automation, simulation, and transmission, we discover not only new technologies but also new facets of ourselves."
—Beth Coleman, Hello Avatar
The great thing about numbers is that "they don't lie". The bad thing about numbers is that when we collect them through tracking devices, sometimes we don't think about where they are going or what they are doing as a set of stats and figures. I was collecting a lot of raw data, but I was also choosing how to display that information to the public. Despite that sense of control, I was anxious about how that information might be reinterpreted and how 'safe' the source data was. My fears stemmed from news I had recalled from 2011 when FitBit, the maker of one of my trackers, had to shut down access to their users' data streams because some user's sexual activities were being displayed publicly for the online world to see .
Aside from the fears associated with my data collection, another issue that I encountered was that some of my data could not be accurately tracked. I spend a lot of time online, but it does not all occur on my laptop. I also use my phone and tablet. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to track Web usage on all three devices as a combined set of metrics. I wanted to track things like how much electricity I used, but I live in a house of four people. My money is shared with my wife, so I couldn't just post credit card purchases as a set of data about my spending; all of my data was skewed. These challenges limited the data points that I could accurately record.
Many of the concerns I had came from the general conservative nature we experience in North America. Being overly open and intimate is considered taboo. Psychoanalysis built up the idea that the 'self' is private . This notion of privacy is slowly being eroded in part because of the Internet. Tracking data online "is an adaptive reaction to the pathologies of disembodiment that are part of digital culture" .
As a culture we have always tracked personal data. As children our parents record our growth as carvings on the kitchen doorframe. We write diaries and journals, assemble scrapbooks and photo albums of vacations, holidays, and birthdays. We balance our chequebooks. This naturalistic data gathering stems from the fact that as humans, we are natural observers of patterns. We see patterns as an almost aesthetic experience . People like data not only for the aesthetic pleasures we experience while viewing it, but also for the simple fact that we have poor memories, and writing it all down helps us to remember .
Our diaries, photo albums, and even our balance sheets are now all online. This shift in the way we collect and curate our data occurred because of a set of shifts in technology—small, inexpensive sensors, portable computing power (smartphones), social media as a sharing tool, and affordable data storage  —without all of these things happening together, we'd still be notching out splinters of wood in the kitchen. The data that we post and share online tells a story of who we are and forms a digital identity of our self . As Gary Wolf, one of the founders of the quantified self movement, states "we leave traces of ourselves with our numbers"  and these traces tell a story.
The ephemeral and often mundane pieces of information we share online via social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook help form the narrative of who we are . Tweets proclaiming our boredom or Instagram photos of our lunch immediately before its consumption litter the Internet, and are often scrolled by with haste as detritus littered across our media timelines, but in their totality, they are in fact pages from the book of 'me'.
Media changes the user. With each shift in automation, simulation, and transmission, we discover not only new technologies but also new facets of ourselves.
—Beth Coleman, Hello Avatar
Digital Self, Defined
Actively sharing data online, whether it is through wifi-enabled pedometers, photo-sharing sites, or posts to social media networks falls under many different umbrellas—self-tracking, life streaming, quantified self, digital self, virtual self, digital identity—but all of these coined phrases share the same central theme: an attempt at "finding the self through the act of documentation" . The digital self is the continuous sharing of personal information to a networked audience (via the Internet), creating a "digital portrait" of the self . There are two key components to the creation of the digital self: the tracking of personal data, and the broadcasting of that data to the audience  . Without the audience, we are merely collecting data.
A Brief History of the Digital Self
In the mid-1990s, a group of researchers began strapping computers and radio transmitters to their bodies. Their heads donned inward-facing digital displays and outward-aiming camera lenses. These researchers, draped in clunky techno-fashion, referred to themselves as "cyborgs". Akin to the borg depicted on the concurrent popular television series Star Trek: the Next Generation, these cyborgs were interconnected to the world around them and to each other. Their wearable computers broadcast their every move to the Internet. The cyborg was part man, part machine. "When their burdensome technology cut into their skin, they were indifferent" . They were often perceived as social outcasts because of their odd attire, and became the target of verbal and physical abuse. The cyborgs truly suffered for their art.
The cyborgs were not alone in trying to share themselves with the world. In April 1996, student and artist, Jennifer Ringley set up jennicam.org, a website that streamed a live feed of her dorm room to the world. When Jenni moved into a new home, so did her camera, followed by several more. The cameras caught every moment of Jenni's life, as well as those who entered her home. Daily activities, intimate or uneventful, ranging from "mundane tasks and chitchat to stripteases and sexual activity"  were broadcast to the world. Jenni shut the site down on December 31, 2003, citing that her site was in violation of PayPal's new anti-nude policies, removing a viable source of funding for the project.
"As I see it, technology has built the house in which we all live. The house is continually being extended and remodelled. More and more of human life takes place within its walls, so that today there is hardly any human activity that does not occur within this house. All are affected by the design of the house, by the division of its space, by the location of its doors and walls. Compared to people in earlier times, we rarely have a chance to live outside this house."
—Ursula Franklin, "The Real World of Technology", Massey Lecture Series, 1989
While Jenni was sharing her life online, Josh Harris, an Internet tycoon, was broadcasting the lives of 100 artists (himself included) from an underground bunker in Manhattan. The space was "rigged with 100 sleeping pods, surveillance cameras, [a] shooting range, translucent shower tents and a banquet table [with a never-ending supply of food and drink]" . The artists were all given free room and board, but in exchange had to abide by Harris' rules. All tenants had to wear orange jumpsuits, were subject to interrogation, and could not leave the bunker, all while being recorded and broadcast 24 hours a day. The bunker was raided by police on New Year's Day, 2000, ending the experiment/installation.
Harris evolved his art form by installing 32 cameras inside his Manhattan apartment. The cameras followed Harris and his girlfriend around the apartment, again streaming every intimate detail of their lives; there was even a camera installed in the bowl of the toilet.
These artists, all shared their life through the lens of the camera, attempting to capture every facet of themselves for public consumption. To do so, they needed special equipment, technical skills, and lots of money. Now, with cheap, inexpensive, portable equipment, everyone can afford to create their own digital self and share it with the world.
Still frames from jennicam.org (Courtesy: JenniCam.org (offline)).
A progression of cyborg equipment by Steve Mann (Courtesy: wearcam.org).
We are attached to our devices, and our devices are attached to the Internet. The Internet connects us to each other. In a way, we are no different than the cyborgs at MIT, we just dress a bit better. My cyborg attire was modest; a thick rubber bracelet, a money clip-sized sensor, and a smartphone were the only physical accoutrements I donned. The devices and software we use to assimilate our cyborg form have no feelings. They do not judge our behaviours or taint the data because they know we need a pick-me-up on a particularly bad day. They act as mirrors, showing us our true digital self . These devices become an extension of who we are in the same way that "clothing is an extension of the skin" . We feel naked without our devices because we become detached from the hive mind; we are no longer connected.
The computer [is] the most extraordinary of Man's technological clothing; it is an extension of our central nervous system. Beside it the wheel is a mere hulahoop."
—Marshall McLuhan, War and Peace in the Global Village
The Internet became a regular part of life in the 1990s. We began communicating through email and connecting via Multiple User Dungeons (MUDs). These MUDs began as chat rooms, created by geeks who cared about eccentric hobbies and interests. We created online identities for these virtual spaces, generating usernames and avatars for their various logins and accounts. These avatars allowed users the chance to shift gender and change race, allowing for the experimentation of identity in these virtual worlds . Today we still use the concept of usernames and avatars to be recognized online, but we often use the same handle—either our real name or a recognizable screen name—to maintain a sense of identity . This self-branding is commonplace, but it does not eliminate the potential for more than one online identity.
The avatar is an essential part of the digital identity. It allows us to put a face to our tweets and likes. Humans are "equal opportunity agency attributors—we see personality in everything, which helps to explain the power of avatars as representations of self" . Avatars literally put a face to the name. They humanize our digitized words. The digital images we upload to act as our avatars can be edited and manipulated, allowing us to alter our identity in any way we choose . An avatar defines our presence online. "They mark our sense of being there together when we are physically apart" . An avatar can share all kinds of identifiers about ourselves through a single image: race, gender, and age can all be shared through our avatars (or we can make it all up) .
Our digital identity is more than just a username and our avatar. It can be comprised of a Facebook account, Tumblr blog, Twitter page, and any other data we may post online, all of these channels proffering a slew of usernames, avatars, and other traces from our lives. A digital identity "can be very complex and dynamic set of information that is hardly ever processed all at once. More often, people view only a small fraction of it, in the form of a social network profile, for instance" .
"In 2006, the cover of Time magazine's annual 'Person of the Year' issue depicted a computer with a shiny mirrored mylar screen, intended to reflect the face of the viewer. The person of the year: You."
—Alice Marwick, Status Update
While it is possible to create multiple identities online, I was careful to keep all of my different domain identities as cohesive and consistent as possible. To ensure uniformness, I had a Web app update my Twitter avatar every time I recorded a new personal likeness on Instagram. My avatar, thus, changed daily, but the image was consistent across all channels. That said, just like in the physical world, some people might know me better than others online. I use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other various social networks, but Facebook, in particular, is closed off from public viewing. Facebook is my digital haven away from the public. I only allow friends and family to see me on Facebook. Just like in the real world, different people see who I am to varying degrees.
The Internet is a place in which we can experiment with identity. We have a multitude of Web apps and online environments in which to experiment  , but while this option is available to us, many people, myself included, try to create a consistent identity—a more authentic self—online. Trying to be one's self online doesn't mean that we act the same between platforms, mind you. Different environments bring out different "selfs"   . The information we share on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn may be consistent with each other, but that doesn't mean that we behave the same way on each site. LinkedIn, for example, is a business-focused social network, whereas Facebook is more for our friends and family. My avatar on both sites may be the same, as is my name, as well as other details about who I am, but the manner in which I comment to others on each site differs given the audience being addressed. Each version of self shares particular pieces of information with each specific audience, "casting certain aspects of life into sharp relief but obscuring others" . In a sense, we are actors, altering our performance for the various audiences and contexts  .
All this performing can be seductive; the Internet provides the potential for "boundless exhibition and narcissism" . We share the good news about ourselves on Facebook seeking kudos and applause; we post our sorrows, hoping for a groundswell of sympathy from our friends and followers. We ensure that only the most photogenic selfies see the light of day online . We carefully craft our posts in an effort to garner the most likes, favourites, and retweets that we can muster . The constant stream of mundane posts, sharing our latest breakfast choice, brand of shampoo, and constant whereabouts is often seen as narcissistic, but that isn't usually the case. Yes, we all like attention, but claiming all of this attention-seeking as narcissistic is a misnomer. Knowing that someone is watching our timelines and news feeds, creates a sense of duty to post; we have an obligation to our audience .
We begin to create content for our online friends and followers. We alter our self to suit our audience. Steve Mann, an MIT cyborg who streamed his life online for three years, noted that over time he began to change the way he walked. "I changed my way of walking so that I was always conscious of framing the shot, ensuring that I was moving down the centre of the corridors and sidewalks in order to provide a cinematographic perspective" . In my Digital Self project I recorded my personal likeness (a selfie) and uploaded it to Instagram each day. Some days I would take multiple images before getting the composition right. I still looked like me, but a part of me wanted the image to be aesthetically pleasing for my audience. Over the 30 days of this project, I began to notice my practice of taking images was adjusting; I was always seeking out a new background for my photos, and trying to change the angle, facial expression, and so on, to keep the content lively and interesting for my audience. As Mann states "I was optimizing some aspect of my private life" .
We are often seeking attention, but that attention is our innate need for togetherness, not narcissism. We are social beings, and we need to communicate, to belong.
We vary how we present ourselves based on context and audience; the way we we talk to the cashier at the grocery store is different than how we respond to friends at the bar . No matter what the context is—Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or the even the dentist's office—we have a sense of who our audience is, but that doesn't mean we know who our audience is online . On many social media sites, like Twitter, we have a perceived sense of who our audience is. We can see how "Follows" us, but that is not where our audience ends. Anyone can read our tweets through the site or other third-party software . Our audience can be anyone.
"...personality is a social chameleon..."
—Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization
We may not know who our audience is, but we still address our audience as though we do. We have a mental image of who our audience should be, even though, in reality, we understand that our audience can be infinite . We compose our tweets and upload pictures based upon who we imagine our audience to be .
During my 30 days of posting I struggled to record all of my data. I was diligent with recording some facets of my self, while I struggled with others. I was supposed to record all of my meals, but failed miserably at remembering to do so. I think, deep down, I assumed that my wife would be one of my audience members, and for that reason I subconsciously "forgot" to post all the unhealthy greasy food I ate while out of the house. I constantly apply filters to my posts, whether it is a conscious decision or not. Like everyone, I have moments of frustration at work, but my job is teaching college students. As much as I would like to publicly complain and criticize their actions at times, I never post anything negative about my class on Twitter because I know that it is public and can be seen by anyone.
Our audience is both public and personal, made up of friends, family, and complete strangers. The members of the audience are not only connected us, but to each other, "creating an active, communicative network" . This pulsing network of people leads to a form of "mass intimacy" . The data we collect and post online is personal, but it is also social;   "...we are at once plugged in to millions of lives around the world while maintaining our identity and our right to our own physical and mental space" .
When we feel naked without our smartphones, it isn't because we feel lost without our calendar and ToDo lists that are stored on the phone; it is because we become disconnected from each other and ultimately we have lost the self that is formed from the audience . We can no longer connect and share the bits and pieces of our lives with others through our social networks. We are no longer part of the cyborg collective. We are no longer our self.
When I proposed my project the the graduate committee for approval I was asked whether I intended to write about other people or photograph them in any way. The committee was worried about ethics, or more specifically, about the right to privacy. If I post an image of my personal likeness with someone else in the background, I have given away their right to privacy. People frequently disclose information about others online, often inadvertently . Privacy isn't just about remaining anonymous or keeping things secret, it's about the right to be able to keep those things secret  . As a result, the only time others were mentioned online was through Twitter, and only if their Twitter accounts were public. The assumption being that I am not disclosing any personal or private information about someone that isn't already public.
When we consciously evaluate privacy online, we tend to focus our thoughts on our known audience. We are "far more concerned with parents or employers viewing [our] Twitter stream than a complete stranger" . This is how I evaluated privacy for my project. I was concerned about how I would be perceived by my peers and the faculty more than I was worried about how a complete stranger might see me. That said, I didn't discount strangers completely. I considered strangers to be just that—someone I did not know, that did not care about me—and acted accordingly. I did not post my whereabouts online, because as I stated earlier, I perceived my audience to include my professors and didn't want to get caught potentially skipping class (I attended all classes). I also did not want to release to the world that I was away from home. A semi-skilled online researcher ("Googler") could easily determine where I live and break in to my home. I realize the likelihood for this scenario is low, and my thoughts are somewhat paranoid, but at the end of the day, I don't know how my data may be used by strangers. In this case, I chose to limit my data and keep it private.
We produce a lot of data about ourselves online. We give away our name, age, gender, and all kinds of personal data to gain access to various websites and social media networks. We buy things online and share our address and credit card information with businesses, not to mention our shopping habits and interests. Our devices track us (where we are, what we used the phone for, etc.) and we actively post images, video, and text to various Web apps. We generate an enormous amount of data about ourselves, and much of it we don't even realize we are creating. All of these byproducts of our Internet activity is known as "data exhaust"  and it allows for high levels of digital surveillance   .
A famous example of this data exhaust being used for surveillance is when big box retailer, Target, determined that a Minneapolis teenager was pregnant before her own father knew. The company sent a set of coupons to the teen's home offering discounts on baby clothes and cribs, all because the data told them that this girl was pregnant .
In the Spring of 2011, Apple iPhone users learned that their phones were logging their continual whereabouts. While Apple claimed that the information was not being actively used, they acknowledged that they were in fact collecting it .
At the University of Texas, researchers managed to identify several Netflix customers without knowing their names or addresses. Netflix, in an aim to improve their movie recommendation algorithms, released an anonymous set of customer data for the public to use in a competition aimed at improving the recommendation engine. The Texas researchers took the anonymous data sets from Netflix and cross-referenced it with other data sets from sites like the Internet Movie Database (IMdB) and Rotten Tomatoes. Not only did the researchers identify the Netflix customers, but they also managed to determine their sexual and political orientations .
The problem with privacy online is that so much of our information is already public . The problem isn't just about what we want to keep private, but how that information is used . Many people don't mind having ads catered to their interests when they surf the Web, but they also don't recognize that those ads are specific to them because of the digital data exhaust they have scattered across the Internet. Users are happy to give up aspects of privacy in return for something they want: coupons, social networking site memberships, and email . Some of the information we've willingly shared online includes: our name, address, birth date, location, who are friends and family are, our email address(es), and the list goes on .
The lack of privacy we face due to digital exhaust is one thing, but even when we share within a closed environment, our data may not be safe. For example, we assume that an email sent to a friend is private, but once that data is sent through the tubes of the Internet, there is no getting it back and making it private again. The email may be meant for only one person, but it's appearance on the screen makes it potentially visible to many  . That private message can be forwarded, cut & pasted, or simply shared by turning the screen towards someone else's glare. At the end of the day, the best way to keep something private is to never put it online. The advice that I live by, and the message that led my decison-making process for this project came from my grandmother long before the Internet; she told me "if you don't want someone to see it, don't write it down".
I recorded a lot of data about myself for 30 days in an effort to create an authentic digital self. I have not, as of yet, defined what it means to be authentic. Rifkin asks the question in The empathic civilization: the race to global consciousness in a world in crisis, "[If] we are dramaturgical, how can we be authentic?"  and his question, in large part, is what led me to this project. I felt that numbers don't lie, and for that reason, collecting all the quantifiable data I could about myself and posting it online, in a sense, would show my authentic self. After reading about all the self, both online and offline, I came to a simple conclusion, one that is best summed up by Alice Marwick: "The fact that we constantly vary self-presentation based on audience reveals authenticity as a construct: are we more or less authentic with our book club or gym partner? Whether we are viewed as authentic depends on the definition imposed by the person doing the judging" . This definition lends itself well to my definition of the self as well. The self is the sum of those around you. We are who we are because of the people in our lives; without friends and family, co-workers and acquaintances, we cease to exist.
I have reviewed the data that I collected during the project and have come to some conclusions about my personal life. I have also confirmed some of my previous beliefs by analyzing the data. Below I will briefly outline these findings:
I drink too much coffee and not enough water. When I looked at my coffee intake versus my water consumption, I realized I am likely dehydrated most (if not all) days. This may further help explain the next point.
I do not sleep well. I have never slept well; I knew that before this study. I have trouble turning my mind off at night, and adding insult to injury, my young children like to come into my bed and takeover the space where I sleep. My sleep habits were validated by the data I collected. The numbers prove that I don't sleep well.
I eat poorly. My meals are not unhealthy (usually), but I probably don't eat enough throughout the day. I reported being hungry during a large portion of each day, and this is likely because I should be eating several small meals each day instead of just breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Additionally, I often eat when I'm hungry, rather than before I'm hungry, which is not the right way to consume calories.
I'm not happy as I think I am. The stress of school, work, and trying to balance my life and help raise my children has taken a toll on my happiness. I knew I was stressed out at times, but when I look at the data, it seems that I spend a lot of time unhappy. This is the single most important thing I learned from this project. To fix this issue, I have started saying "yes" to more things in my life—my kids, experiences, and people's favours—and in the short time I have started saying "yes" more often I have noticed a significant improvement in my happiness. And I don't need the data to prove it!
A chart generated by fitbit, displaying the calories burned by my daily activities.<
FitBit records how many flights of stairs I climb each day. Mid month I had to charge the device and broke the habit of putting it on, resulting in a week of forgetfulness.
Total distance walked during my 30 days of tracking.
A breakdown from RescueTime of how I spend my time on the computer. Apparently I write a lot more than I thought I did.
RescueTime's breakdown of my overall productivity on the computer for the 30 days of tracking.
This is a list of keywords Facebook provided of the keywords used to target ads to me.
Screen captures from the Reporter iPhone app highlight some interesting details, like I apparently don't do much work!
I drink way too much coffee, and spend a lot of time at school. I think a correlation could be made.
My sleep was rarely categorized as "Great", and for some reason I always felt very tired.
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