The Use of Self-Tracking Technologies and Social Media in Self-Representations and Management of Health

Self-tracking technologies, which are advocated through health promotion strategies in neoliberal states, as well as by the corporations who market their benefits, have until very recently evaded critique and been primarily promoted as revolutionary tools for ‘health’ betterment. At the same time, these technologies demonstrate the shift from a public welfare state responsibility for health towards individualised self-care practices. Research has attended to the role of self-tracking technologies in multiple settings such as work, education, insurance schemes, and leisure pursuits. However, no research has examined their use in representations of ‘health’ on social media. This thesis fills a research lacuna, by exploring how these performed and curated ‘health(y)’ identities impact health behaviours in users’ daily lives, through self- and peer surveillance of ‘health’-related content. Through a thematic analysis of empirical ethnographic data from semi-structured interviews, guided reflexive diaries and an analysis of online content, this thesis examines how self-representations of ‘health’ from self-tracking technologies and social media (Facebook and Instagram) influence ‘health’ management in users’ (online and offline) everyday lives. Over the (three to nine-month) research period, the methodologies encouraged unanticipated reflexive engagement from the participants, in relation to their tracking, sharing and ‘health’ practices. Additionally, this approach provided a new lens through which to explore distinctions between online and offline ‘divides’ and negotiations from a user perspective.

The empirical findings identified both the qualitative and quantitative self-representations and practices of self-tracking in managing the body and ‘health’. The collaborative information produced within these data-sharing cultures changes user behaviours, understandings of the body and what is deemed as ‘healthy’, in relation to others. Diet, lifestyle and the body are tailored to what is aesthetically pleasing on social media. The embodiment of ‘good health’, feeling morally ‘better’ and physically ‘well’ are empowered through feedback and (imagined) community surveillance, motivating users to continually self-survey, document and share ‘health’ representations. In contrast, these practices frequently distracted participants from personal ‘health’ goals, gratification and experience. When technology is removed or resisted from within these surveillant cultures, regulation of the body, with or without the tools and ‘technologies of the self’, is still prevalent, preventative and self-policing. At the core of these practices are complex assemblages of knowledge, technologies, subjectivity and ethics, which force users to bring the future into the present by controlling their bodies for the expectation and promise of better, ‘healthier’ and ‘optimised’ futures. In turn, future ‘health’ is demanded as a reward for past management of the body.

Watch a video of Rachael discussing her research into (Life) Writing The Health Self: Social Media Narratives and Self Tracking as our Digital Diaries and Sleep Tracking:

Films by Rachael Kent and Arko Hojholt, 2017, prepared as part of the Dear Diary exhibition, curated by Professor Clare Brant and Dr Polly North (click here to learn more).

See also Rachael’s presentation at the ‘Metric Culture: The Quantified Self and Beyond‘ conference, hosted by the Institute of Advanced Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark in June 2017, which will feed in to her chapter ‘Social Media and Self-Tracking: Representing the Health Self’ in B. Ajana, ed., Self-Tracking (Palgrave MacMillan – forthcoming).

See also Rachael being interviewed by BBC World News in December 2018 about how Facebook users assess its value:

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Rachael is a scholar in the fields of digital culture, communication and social analysis. Rachael’s academic research is interdisciplinary and... read more about: Rachael Kent