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Keynote–The Social Lives of Personal Data: Communicative Figurations in the Rise of Self-Tracking

I gave this keynote address at the “Communicative Figurations” conference at the University of Bremen in December 2016.

Today smartphones and wearable devices help people to self-track: hours slept, steps taken, calories consumed, medications administered. Over one hundred million wearable sensors were shipped globally last year to help people gather data about their lives. This keynote examines the social lives of personal data and how reconsidering this data as a media product helps scholars theorize a significant social change.ย  Data about the self is social in how it is recorded, analyzed, and reflected upon.ย  Communities form around digital self-tracking data, advocates argue how the data should and could be used to, and industries create new ways to buy, sell, and share this data. Yet, scholarly literature and practical knowledge alike focus on the personal aspects of self-tracking data, at the risk of limiting the possible interventions and protections of the data and the people from whose bodies and lived experienced the data were produced. To understand the social lives of data, I look at the practices of serious self-tracking enthusiasts, the design of commercial self-tracking technology, and how self-tracking is being used to fill serious gaps in the healthcare system. Can mediatization approaches help explain self-tracking practices, and in turn can these practices extend communication theory? Today no one can lead an entirely untracked life. But can this data be used in a way that empowers and educates the people who generate it? The answer depends on the social design of self-tracking data.