'Life tracking'

CanWest News Service
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A diary with a difference

In the first half of 2009, Jonathan Liu read to his kids 267 times, yelled at them 57 times and slept 1,248 hours. How does he know? Because, like a growing number of others fastidiously compiling personal statistics, he recorded it.

Enabled by technology and fuelled by a modern compulsion to document every move, growing numbers of "life trackers" are creating a new kind of personal chronicle where daily life is represented in meticulously curated factoids rather than emotions and narratives.

In the first half of 2009, Jonathan Liu read to his kids 267 times, yelled at them 57 times and slept 1,248 hours. How does he know? Because, like a growing number of others fastidiously compiling personal statistics, he recorded it.

Enabled by technology and fuelled by a modern compulsion to document every move, growing numbers of "life trackers" are creating a new kind of personal chronicle where daily life is represented in meticulously curated factoids rather than emotions and narratives.

"Things like Facebook status updates and Twitter allow for this sort of, 'I'm going to tell you what I'm up to at any given moment,'" says Liu, a Kansas-based stay-at-home dad and contributor to Wired magazine's GeekDad blog.

Tech aids

Aside from people like him who set out specifically to create personal databases, new technology is increasingly encouraging ordinary people to do the same thing on a smaller scale, he says.

Smartphones and myriad apps they support are at the centre of this life-tracking movement.

Foursquare broadcasts a user's whereabouts in case Twitter followers care who stopped for coffee where, and other apps allow people to graph everything from their meals (FoodTrackerPro) and menstrual cycles (iPeriod) to spending (PocketMoney) and household chores (HomeRoutines). Runners use the Nike+ system to log their workouts and publicize their progress through their social networking accounts, and there are thumb-sized video cameras for those who'd rather record their life visually.

"This would not be useful for anyone unless someone wanted to make a museum of me, and I don't expect that to happen, so why do I do this?" Liu asks, laughing.

It's always been his tendency to document his daily life in the electronic calendar on his PDA, he says, but it was the Feltron Annual Report that inspired him to step up his efforts.

Annual report

New Yorker Nicholas Felton created his first personal annual report in 2004, intending only to "memorialize the year" with graphs depicting his airline travel and the songs he listened to, thinking it might provide amusement for people who knew him. To his surprise, the report attracted wider interest, and it's grown in scope every year since, drawing 125,000 unique visitors and one million page views so far this year.

A graphic designer by day, Felton creates complex graphs depicting, say, his annual drinking habits (30 per cent Stella Artois in 2008) or the number of burglars confronted (one: in his apartment window).

"My favourite stories are maybe the ones that are more entertaining, like knowing that in 2008, I travelled 179 miles with a moustache," he says.

A year ago, he launched Daytum, a website with a simple interface that allows users to track their own lives. So far, 30,000 members have created two million records, and though Feltron doesn't reveal the site's traffic, he says more than half the pages viewed by the average visitor belong to other people, suggesting there's plenty of voyeurism.

"There's definitely the self-reflection part of it, where you look at these stories about someone else and you wonder, 'How many glasses of milk did I have or how do I measure up?'" he says.

One user has logged more than 9,000 entries about the daily experiences of his Lhasa Apso, Charley; another uses it to publicly track sexual partners and a third records his copious drug use and publishes it on Twitter.

"That's something we have been accused of, is to facilitate people with (obsessive compulsive disorder)," Felton says.

But as Liu found, recording daily life changes it.

Adapting

When he forced himself to record each time he lost his cool with his kids, he says he did it less, and a similarly virtuous urge kicked in when he was choosing whether to take his bike or car. He likens the effect to appearing on reality TV.

"Even when you're the one doing the watching, I think it does have that effect," he says. "Recording a diary of what you did, you want it to look good."

Some of the information he gathered was useful, Liu says, but much of it seemed pointless, and six months into the experiment, he abandoned it because he "started feeling like I was putting more work into recording the data about my life than I was actually living it."

But in an era when everyone grooms their Facebook profile to present their best self, Felton says these exhaustive quantitative records impart a "real believability" that's in short supply online.

"There's an honesty that goes along with these types of stories that, whether people are aware of it or not, is pretty forthcoming," he says.

Organizations: Wired magazine, Nike

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Recent comments

  • J
    July 02, 2010 - 13:33

    Agreed.

    He should get himself tested for OCD.

  • prufock
    July 02, 2010 - 13:09

    The statistic I'm most interested in: the amount of time he wasted recording all of that.

  • J
    July 01, 2010 - 20:22

    Agreed.

    He should get himself tested for OCD.

  • prufock
    July 01, 2010 - 19:45

    The statistic I'm most interested in: the amount of time he wasted recording all of that.