The Quantified Self, Identity, and Value


The quantified self is a way to gain self knowledge through numbers. I first came across the concept within the context of health, as a way to self-track progress towards specific goals. From the site, slightly edited and summarized (emphasis mine):

Quantified Self is a collaboration of users and tool makers who share an interest in self knowledge through self-tracking. It's an information exchange about personal projects, the tools people use, tips gleaned, and lessons learned. This happens through blogging, face to face meetups, and online collaboration. There are three main “branches”:

1. the online hub

2. show & tell meetup groups (you can start your own)

3. user and tool maker conference (the first one will be in Santa Monica, CA, May 28-29, 2011)

The QS blog and community are maintained and moderated by Alexandra Carmichael, Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf. Each of the QS Show&Tell meetings has its own set of organizers.

If you're looking to get started with self-tracking, here are some links and resources on the site. I'm thinking about the broader concept of what we decide to track as an important component of our identity.

When you work in an organization, your identity is tracked and documented fairly regularly.

In fact, in recent years IT and HR policies have introduced strict codes of verification. From a business standpoint, you have a specific role in the organizational chart — another way to track where you are in relationship to the context.

However, where value used to be in the specific role you filled as part of the overall hierarchy, introduce the shift to knowledge workers, the competitive need for creativity and innovation, the networked nature of work, and customers filling the top box in everyone's org chart and you have a more interesting and dynamic calculation.

There are clear advantages and open questions to using new tools to collaborate, pull data about one's performance — as in self-tracking how you're doing — against older concepts of market value and external assessment.

Self-tracking and drive

Riffing off JP Ragaswami and the idea that workstreaming, in combination with a couple of other techniques, can make sensible use of the cognitive surplus; how this will allow enterprises of all sizes to move away from traditional politically charged blame-cultures to genuine value-builders.

An essential element, especially for workers who come into contact with customers, is the idea of quantifying the results of efforts. When you know which elements of the experience are decisive, move the needle, then you have a more immediate incentive to replicate those behaviors.

Behaviors are one of the components that shape identity, along with context. A source of feedback that allows someone to tweak how they're doing based upon data points ends up igniting a couple of key components of personal drive: mastery, and purpose. There is no limit for better in this system.

Open questions on value

There is another kind of quantification tool that is making inroads in a couple of different executions. These take into account both connected and public or potential/discovery social networks.

You are probably familiar with LinkedIn's questions and answers system. People can post public questions in different categories, invite their network to respond by sending an email through the system, and rate responses. You can also search the network for existing questions to answer.

Then you have a newer system, called Quora. Their aim is to create a database or repository of knowledge comprising almost everything anyone wants to know forever available to search. As the site says, answers on question pages don't depend on any context about the asker except for what is specified in the question text and details. People have the ability to rate answers.

Because people accept much higher level of complexity, rules, etc. when playing games than they do in business, other tools are sprouting to take advantage of game-like dynamics to find value — read currency — in social networks.

Will the Quantified Self help with value?

There's yet another new tool in town. It's called Empire Avenue. As people are already asking on Quora, the jury is still out on wether this is a fad or it's here to stay. I find the thought that people can buy and sell or cash in other people akin to that of organizations doing the same in other ways — hiring and layoffs being the main ones.

It's interesting to note that Empire Avenue's stated goal (source: LinkedIn Company profile) is to revolutionize and energize the online advertising market. It's also spelled out in the site's TOS, that

you grant Empire Avenue the right to share User Content, data, and derivates of them (such as compatibility metrics) with advertisers and other registered users.

Essentially, you have a complex, content- and interaction-driven way of signaling who is influencing opinion. Paraphrasing an email I received from Tom Ohle, VP Marketing and Media Relations, EA:

can measure engagement not only on Twitter and Facebook, but also on YouTube, Flickr, your Facebook pages, and blogs, to give you an idea of how you’re doing on each social medium, and how you might improve – definitely helpful for marketers.

What they do for the average user is teach about effective social networking. By being active, engaging your audience and growing your network, you’ll earn “achievements,” increase your share price, and, most importantly, meet a lot of really interesting people across the social web – not just on one network.

This explanation seems to be confusing the complexity and rules of business variables and how games can help people forget those and use what they know to improve and achieve outcomes with manipulating known variables — your own social outposts — to score badges.

It's early days, so I give them the benefit of the doubt. It may be missing the point. I'm thinking the Quantified Self is much closer to identifying value and helping with real changes in behavior — those that affect the bottom line.

Your take

What's your take? Is the current execution of social pressure mechanisms helping with trust and credibility, or are people learning to "perform" as in play someone different online?

Are you using any of the tools listed on the Quantified Self site? Given that many are online, I know some people prefer to track themselves using a more private medium, for example Google docs. Does tracking help you improve behavior? A personal example: since I started tracking all calories I eat, in addition to logging exercise, I lost 30 lbs.

There are clear advantages to knowing what to track, what moves the needle, to know whether you're wasting time on Twitter or not. Would you see an application of this concept as a way to self evaluate your work?


[image of Quantified Self from h+ magazine]

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