Do you track your steps and astonishingly low resting pulse rate with a FitBit? Post pictures of your five-star dinner to FoodSpotting? Check in to glamorous locations with FourSquare? Post ego-promoting selfies to Instagram or Flickr on a daily basis?
You might be a datasexual.
The concept isn’t new — it first came along in BigThink in April, 2012 — but it has gotten new attention because of a recent IEEE Spectrum piece. A datasexual is “a person who’s an obsessive self-tracker, not just to enhance self-knowledge but also to embellish self-presentation, especially on social networks,” writes Paul McFedries. “Our friend the datasexual is almost always into ‘success theater,’ the posting of images and stats designed to make others believe he is more successful than he really is.”
Choice of pronoun, incidentally, is from IEEE Spectrum.
And it’s big business, too. According to Technori, 69% of US adults track at least one health metric (though almost half are still tracking in their heads) and VC funding in this space doubled last year.
While there is some scientific evidence that oversharing on social networks has a physiological reward, the datasexual takes it to a whole other level, for different reasons. The datasexual is a variation of the “quantified self,” the sort of person who attempts to track everything about himself – self-applied Taylorism, Big Personal Data.
“Self-trackers seem eager to contribute to our knowledge about human life,” writes Gary Wolf. “The world is full of potential experiments: people experiencing some change in their lives, going on or off a diet, kicking an old habit, making a vow or a promise, going on vacation, switching from incandescent to fluorescent lighting, getting into a fight. These are potential experiments, not real experiments, because typically no data is collected and no hypotheses are formed. But with the abundance of self-tracking tools now on offer, everyday changes can become the material of careful study.”
This constant level of self-recording is likely to go even further with the advent of “wearable computing”, such as the smart watch and Google Glass, not to mention the Internet of Things, which could add innumerable sensors to our environment. One data scientist profiled by AllThingsD wore 21 sensors at a time. There are even websites and conferences, as well as a Twitter feed, devoted to the quantified self.
And the datasexual goes even further — collecting and propagating data about himself as part of a process of creating an online image like a data-driven hologram.
“There are many people whose Internet posts are simply intended to draw attention to themselves,” writes Meredith Bower, in Curiosity.com. “They are seeking microfame. Behind the screen, using blogs, Facebook and other outlets, they can project an image of who they are or who they want others to believe they are.”
The concept is sometimes known as a “humblebrag,” a social media false modesty, along the lines of the guy who says in a job interview that his biggest weakness is that he’s a workaholic. Typically in Tweets, a #humblebrag is a person talking about the tough, tough life they have being famous, rich, or well-connected, all in a self-deprecating way that nevertheless gets the point across – and helps build their brand so they can maintain or raise their level of being famous, rich, or well-connected.
“It’s our ongoing quest for identity — or as some prefer to call it, ‘personal brand’ — that’s propelling this,” agrees Paul Hiebert in the Pacific Standard.
Some attribute this to an epidemic of narcissism in the U.S. in general. The Narcissism Epidemic, published in 2010, traces it as far back as the “Me Decade” of the 1970s, not to mention the Wall Street decade of the 1980s. And the Internet has only made it worse, authors Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell write.
But while datasexuals may try to convince themselves that they’re doing all this to make friends, that’s really not the effect. Says the Money After Graduation blog, “When someone is continuously posting details about their life on every platform, they’re not doing it to connect with others, but rather have the idea that they are so interesting and awesome, everyone following them cares what they had for breakfast this morning.”
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