This week we focus on Dr Rachael Kent’s work. Rachael – whose background is in media and communication studies – completed her PhD with the Ego Media team, and is now a teaching fellow in digital media and culture in the Department of Digital Humanities
Self-tracking & health identity
For her PhD, Rachael focused on how users of self-tracking technologies and social media use these technologies to represent their health identity online, and how that influenced the ways they managed their health offline. “So, she says, “I was interested with how users of both self-tracking and social media technologies were using these technologies in their everyday lives to track their health, manage it, and share and perform certain identities. And then once they shared this content how that influenced, under the gaze of the community, how they actually performed and managed health – in comparison to others as well. How did community surveillance and the technologies they were using affect their health management? How did it mould and direct what they shared online, and how they felt about their bodies offline?”
Initially Rachael planned to focus on one or two self-tracking technologies and how that content was being shared online. But because the self-tracking movement and social media changed over the course of her project, her research broadened. “Self-trackers,” she says, “have shifted to using more than one tracking device. Rather than just relying on say, Nike Running Club, or MyFitnessPal, people now use different apps for different reasons.” Additionally, Rachael noticed the younger participants in her study switch their focus from Facebook to Instagram.
What is health?
Rachael’s research made her more self-reflexive about health and what health is. “One of the first questions I asked my participants was about what health meant to them. Interestingly, a lot of my participants couldn’t answer that, or even give me a definition of health. Thinking about my own health practices, that really resonated with me.”
Her decision to study self-tracking evolved from her own experiences. “I’ve always been interested in health and health management,” she said, “and I started looking at self-tracking technologies in my Master’s dissertation. I used a Nike Running application to try and increase my health and fitness, and also a nutritional app to follow some raw food
juicing diet trend that was quite popular at the time. I over-exercised, didn’t provide my body with the nutrition it needed, and ended up in hospital with multiple organ failure and sepsis. Fortunately I recovered, and after about a month – while still in hospital – I turned my phone on, and my phone was still nudging me to remind me to go for a run, and telling me ‘Rachael look at what your friends have done’, during the time I’ve been in a hospital bed. I still felt this really odd sense of guilt about the fact that I hadn’t been able to run X amount of miles as my friends had during this time, even though I’d obviously been extremely ill.
And, in that moment, I realised that there’s something quite mad about following the guidance of an app to damage your body. Also why did I still felt a responsibility to the app, even after I’d been through what I had?”
One of the research findings that most interested Rachael was how users would perform health for the gaze of the community. But she also fascinated to discover how – even once they stopped certain health practices, stopped tracking their health and sharing their health practices – “they would still embody this idea of a ‘healthy self’, a ‘healthy person; from previous self-tracking and performance of representational behaviours. This was particularly the case with Instagram users. “So, even if they had changed their behaviours, they still held on to their self-tracking healthy identity.”
Ego Media’s life writing approach enabled Rachael to look at her research from a different perspective. “It helped me look at these technologies and practices in more of a diarising or autobiographical sense, in terms of how users would look back on their data and the content that they’d created and shared. They would perceive the body as malleable based upon their past behaviours, and they would feel that their future would be healthier – more optimal – based upon this construction of a life log identity over time.”
The “health self”
And so she developed the idea of the “health self”. “The health self”, she says “is a continually improving, optimal being, that is never quite attainable or achievable, but was a goal for these users. And I think that was the interesting thing, that despite their focus and their everyday lives on health, they were never quite sure what the word health meant to them, or how they could even attain optimal health. It was a goal to continually work towards.”
This concept is the focus of Rachael’s first book: The Health Self’ – Digital Performativity and Health Management in Everyday Life, which will be published by Bristol University Press as part of the Quantified Societies and Selves Series.
The book explores the cultural significance and social implications of the pervasive adoption of self-tracking technologies and social media as tools of health performativity and management. It examines the ways in which these technologies are integrated into individuals’ everyday lives to track, regulate and perform health practices, exploring the perspectives of those working towards specific health goals – like marathon training or dieting – people experiencing illness and chronic disease, and everyday lay users.
Video: the health self
Self-tracking, Rachael explains, has moved from being exclusively quantitative to both a qualitative AND a quantitative movement. “Originally it was about collecting data –numerical, valued data; quantified data. Whereas now we have added in more qualitative aspects likes mood, or performing identity in certain ways on, for example, Instagram.” There are also broad generational differences. “The younger generation are coming away from Facebook because it’s just not cool anymore. Instagram is now the more desirable platform. So, while older generations seem to be sharing more autobiographical and even confessional content on Facebook – using it almost as a therapeutic space – younger people are sharing more visually. It’s capturing that image to represent something about your identity.”
More than data…
“Users of self-tracking tech, for example, don’t want to just have their quantified data from their run. They want a picture of a beautiful bit of scenery they passed, or something interesting they saw on their run. That’s more than just ‘data’. It has to depict more about their personality, their lifestyle, where they’re running and what they see. They’ll run further to get a good shot so they can put it on Instagram – as opposed to running further because they want to or they need to hit a training goal.”
While some of the participants in Rachael’s study were self-tracking to improve athletic prowess, others were doing so to help manage acute illness or chronic disease. For these people, “sharing this self-confessional, very personal aspects and journeys of their of their health or illness on Facebook and Instagram, was a therapeutic part of the process. They found that this process of sharing helped them deal with the illness and its impact on their lives.”