TMI, Dude!

If you are a baseball fan like I am, it is not unusual for you to spend time with your fellow sports fanatics comparing statistics.  A player’s batting average, on base percentage, runs batted in, earned  run average, home run stats and how those compare to their team mates’ stats–all fair game for friendly conversation.  The personal analysis of players’ worth doesn’t stop there, as each of them has their height, weight, age and home town displayed on the screen as they step up to bat.  Can you imagine if every time you went to work a big Jumbotron screen with all your vital statistics followed you around for all to see.  “Look, there’s Lisa on deck.  Man, she really is that short.”

Well, you might be horrified to think that the intimate descriptive details of your being might be published and used to compare your value to others, but there is a growing cadre of people who willingly do exactly that despite the complete impossibility that they will ever be found sliding into home plate. In case you have missed it, there is a burgeoning movement built around “self-knowledge through numbers” generally known as “the Quantified Self.”  The term Quantified Self refers to the actions that thousands and thousands of over-achievers, narcissists and the insecure are actively undertaking every day, aided by a giant leap forward in sensor and wireless technology, to measure, track and report their vital statistics in the pursuit of living forever, or at least until the Houston Astros win the 2011 World Series in a sweep.  FYI if you’re not a baseball fan–that’s going to happen about 3 weeks after hell freezes over.

In a recent article in The Healthcare Blog, Scott Peppet writes:

Human instrumentation is booming. FitBit can track the number of steps you take a day, how many miles you’ve walked, calories burned, your minutes asleep, and the number of times you woke up during the night. BodyMedia’s armbands are similar, as is the Philips DirectLife device. You can track your running habits with RunKeeper, your weight with a WiFi Withings scale that will Tweet to your friends, your moods on MoodJam or what makes you happy on TrackYourHappiness. Get even more obsessive about your sleep with Zeo, or about your baby’s sleep (or other biological) habits with TrixieTracker. Track your web browsing, your electric use (or here), your spending, your driving, how much you discard or recycle, your movements and location, your pulse, your illness symptoms, what music you listen to, your meditations, your Tweeting patterns. And, of course, publish it all — plus anything else you care to track manually (or on your smartphone) — on Daytum or mycrocosm or me-trics or elsewhere.


I can understand why one might want to track their own health statistics or activities; it might give you the information to improve your weight loss program or get your kid to sleep better.  But there is definitely a point where self-reflection mutates into OCD.

What really  blows me away about this whole quantified self thing, however, is the competitive aspect of it.  Virtually all of these products and programs feature ways of broadcasting your data to others in order to, for all intents and purposes, pursue awesomeness and make sure everyone knows when you have achieved it.  Before long we are all going to have our own baseball cards–let’s call them TMI cards– with our drivers license picture on the front and our body mass index, blood pressure, original hair color and Angry Birds high score on the back.  Maybe the TMI cards of certain people who have achieved superior levels of awesomeness will be worth trading for as if they were mint condition Mickey Mantle cards, providing aspiring perfectionists with a visual goal and reminder of how far they have to go to reach their maximum human potential.

I find it incredibly ironic that, on the one hand, people go to great lengths to protect their privacy and keep their sensitive information from prying eyes while, on the other hand, they might freely enable the tracking and reporting of a wide array of vital statistics in the name of of personal growth slightly flavored by schadenfreude. I can just hear some of those the quantified-selfers thinking such things as ,”ok, so my blood pressure might be a little higher than my co-workers, but at least I sleep better, check in at the gym more often and recycle 32% more frequently than that annoying guy in marketing…ha!” The truly committed won’t think that but will Tweet it instead. God help us all.

Scott Peppet, a lawyer, natch, focuses his article on an interesting aspect of privacy, or the leaking away thereof, discussing a process called “unraveling.”  Unraveling is essentially the idea that if enough people with “good” data are willing to track and publish it, there will be an increasing pressure for everyone to do so as the information becomes usable in economic endeavors.  Peppet writes:

Unraveling occurs because when a few people with “good” information can verifiably measure, track, and share information, everyone (even those with “bad” information) may ultimately find they have little choice but to follow suit. If all candidates for a job are willing to wear a blood alcohol monitor and you’re not, the negative inference drawn about you is obvious. If all the safe drivers quickly sign up for “discounts” that require electronic monitoring of their driving, those who refuse will quickly find themselves paying what amounts to a penalty.

I know that many of us caution our kids about what never to put on their Facebook page. “Honey,” we say, “please no photos of your drunken rampages in your Status Bar; future employers might be looking, not to mention college recruiters.”  But would we think to tell them not to post their daily mood, as measured by some sensor embedded in the shiny new cartilage piercing they just got at the mall?  It might seem harmless enough, but said college recruiter might just look askance at junior’s propensity to have a serious dip in mood every time they hear a song by Avenged Sevenfold; I mean, it’s hard to control for that on college radio.

So quantified self:  good or bad?  As with most things, it depends.  There just has to be something a little self-destructive about over-analyzing, much less over-sharing, every little personal data point with your 3587 Facebook friends, including that girl in high school you used to hate but you accepted her friend request anyway.  At the same time, there is clear value in the kind of serious introspection, colored by fact, that drives us to improve our health and behavior in the world, even if it is only to avoid being shunned (or to help us look good in a bathing suit).

I am intrigued to watch this movement evolve as it seeks to strike the right balance between self-reflection, self-improvement and TMI, dude!

Lisa Suennen is a managing member of Psilos Group, co-headquartered in the Bay Area and New York City, The firm has funded and developed more than 38 innovative companies, including ActiveHealth, AngioScore, Click4Care, Definity Health, ExtendHealth and OmniGuide. Lisa blogs at Venture Valkyrie.