Tweeting Gluten Free: Quantified Self, Qualified Self, or Both?

One of the (many) questions I have asked myself when researching how people with Coeliac Disease or Gluten Intolerance catalogue, share and tweet about their experience of the gluten free diet, and the adverse physical and psychological symptoms of ingesting gluten, is: to what extent, if any, can these kinds of activities be classified as falling within the realms of the Quantified Self movement, quantified self-tracking, and even qualified self tracking?

My initial understanding of the Quantified Self ‘movement’ per se, was that of a growing number of people who day-to-day (or night-to-night), who used a variety of self-tracking tools, gadgets (e.g. FitBit One, Nike Fuel Band, Jawbone Up24), apps (e.g. Sleep Cycle, Sleepbot), and other methods to track lifestyle factors that affect thier everyday state of being. This falls within quite a narrow meaning of what it means to self track, and as Mark Carrigan discusses in Boesel’s definition:

..the QS encompasses a very particular relationship between personal and social reflexivity: ““QSers” don’t just self-track; they also interrogate the experiences, methods, and meanings of their self-tracking practices, and of self-tracking practices generally”

To this extent, I had a hard time reconciling the less techy use of tweets, photos and mentions of gluten free food, products, venues and symptoms by Coeliacs and the Gluten Intolerant. After all, (from my initial research of both Facebook and Twitter) no real heavy reliance on apps/gadgets has been found to be used within this community and, unlike the dedicated quantified self-tracking movement – there seems to be no outwardly quantified, on-going/retrospective analysis/discussion of accumulated data with the help of app data readouts and visualisations.

But at the same time, there *is* some form of self-tracking going on – individuals are tweeting about gluten free meals, tracking and sign-posting where the latest gluten free foods are found, and sharing and analysing painful/debilitating symptoms (as well as retrospectively tracking what was last eaten) when gluten is accidentally ingested (or they are ‘glutened’). So, if this use of social media isn’t Quantified Self tracking in the narrow sense of the definition of the Quantified Self Movement, what is it?

Over the last year or so, it seems that a much broader discussion of what it means to self-track seems to be opening up in the sociological discussion of self-tracking using various forms of technology, and the context within which this is done. A recent reading of the notion of the Qualified Self, and posts by Mark Carrigan on Qualitative self-tracking and the Qualified Self, and Deborah Lupton on “…The Reflexive Monitoring Self” – have also shown this. Lupton argues that ‘self-tracking’ isn’t simply about quantified or quantifiable information, but about “…a broader and more inclusive […] range of practices…” based within the contexts of the various social, cultural and political contexts in which they are carried out:

Many self-trackers record non-quantifiable data as part of their practice, including journaling accounts of their daily activities, emotional states and relationships, collecting audio data or visual images and producing visualisations that centre on their aesthetic or explanatory properties rather than their representation of numbers.

It is arguable that what is and isn’t quantifiable depends on the perspective of how it is quantified. If it is communicated in the public domain (like Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook), then the data can be quantified to some extent, depending on the mode and method used by the data scientist/researcher/marketing analyst using it. However, for the purposes of *self* tracking/quantifying, with the absence of easily accessible and utilised tools to self-analyse specific emotional/sentiment, visual or numeric patterns in status updates and photographs taken – the data shared becomes un-quantifiable to the average user. As Lupton goes on to say:

Some commentators seek to position the ‘qualified self’ as a practice involving reflection and interpretation of information, whether this information is in the form of numbers or not. For several writers, the qualified self involves interpretation and assessment of any form of data…

In this sense then, status updates on Twitter, Instagram and the like – seem to fall within the mode of the ‘qualified self’. Daily reflections, photographic and spatial sign-posting of new gluten free finds and venues, and how this is interpreted within the context of self-managing a chronic autoimmune disease, go some way towards humanizing the raw data found in the number of posts and images shared. As both Lupton and Davis comment, it creates and extends a subjective narrative around the data shared, and “the mechanisms of which the data morphs into [digital] selves”. In this way, selfhood thus becomes “inextricably entangled with [the] interpretation of information” that is shared.

Although the main goal for Coeliacs seems to be the sharing of information, rather than the quantifying of it, perhaps it is this process of daily updates and photographs of gluten free food that acts as means of making the daily (and sometimes frustrating) experience of the gluten free diet more manageable. From the initial biographical disruption (Bury, 1982) of the initial diagnosis of Coeliac Disease (though some may claim a biographical re-enforcement (Williams, 2000), if individuals had long suspected an intolerance to gluten, or that something was responsible for prolonged ill-health) – and the immediate need to switch to a life-saving gluten free diet – perhaps the digital collecting, sharing and interpreting of data about themselves and their experiences is, best described as ‘the reflexive monitoring self’, and part of the work in the journey towards becoming a new ‘self’ (Lupton, 2014). In this case, the ‘new self’ is an individual self-managing the gluten free diet, or perhaps a ‘healthy Coeliac’.

These and more on-going discussions of the qualified and quantified self have gone some way to resolving (in my mind at least), this previously uneasy fit of how tweets, Instagram photos, Pinterest collections and other social media, could also fall (be it more broadly) within the context of self-tracking for specific chronic health-management reasons.

So, how does the quantified and qualified self separate out in relation to health-related tweeting? In this context, ‘quantifying’ activity lies in the daily tweet statuses/photographs of gluten free food found/purchased or consumed, whereas the ‘qualified’ self-tracking comes to life in relation to the very specific chronic health-related context within which this is being done (i.e. the additional tweets, that for example, talk about nutritionist appointments, blood tests, organising a vacation, school trip, work conference or honeymoon – where access to gluten free food is stress free).

The qualified self is more amplified here, in the context of the evolving biographical narrative or flow (Williams, 2000), where Coeliac individuals tweet about their adaption to a lifestyle that focuses on the self-management of a gluten free diet, and the many other aspects of their lives that this affects. It also acts as a way of signposting new finds/venues to others with the same autoimmune disease – a digital layer of communication associated with the biological self, and how it interacts with spatial, per se. As Rabinow (1996 and 2008) argued, a new Biosociality has emerged, he argued:

“…it is not hard to imagine groups formed around the chromosome 17, locus 16, 256, site 654, 376 allelle variant with a guanine substitution…”

And now in the current age social media, we see a Digital Biosociality emerging, with whole communities drawn together in relation to certain chronic diseases/illnesses like Coeliac Disease, Huntingdon’s Disease, Diabetes, Cancer and more via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and beyond. As Niclas Hagen states:

Biosociality has then during the last years gone digital which means that many of the processes that were accounted for in the former sections might be web-based in the future. What are the implications of this development? Well, that is a question that is still awaits more research by social and cultural scientists…

The analysis of this Digital Biosociality also tallies with the now oft used observation in Digital Sociology and the Social Sciences – that the research of Social Data necessitates the employ of both quantitative and qualitative research methods. The use of quantified harvesting techniques of social media data, and some initial quantified analysis of the numbers and patterns formed feed into the use of Big Data. But ultimately, the analysis of ‘wide data’ or ‘deeper data’ stems from the important need for an investigative sociological and qualitative lens to shone on this digitally social activity. Digital Sociology comes into play, in a need for us to dig underneath the numbers, to understand all the human, emotive, spatial, temporal and pure liveliness of this social data as it is produced by us in our human experience of the self – in relation to the social, cultural, environmental and political world around us.

References

Bury, M. (1982). “Chronic illness as biographical disruption”. Sociology of health & illness, 4(2), 167-182.

Carrigan, M. (2014). “Qualitative self-tracking and the Qualified Self”. Accessed 06.08.2014. URL: http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/15674

Carrigan, M. (2014). “Self-tracking and data sensibilities”. Accessed 06.08.2014. URL: http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/15727

Carrigan, M. (2014). “Self-tracking and social control: what would techno-fascism look like?”. Accessed 06.08.2014. URL: http://markcarrigan.net/2014/07/31/self-tracking-and-social-control/

Davis, J. (2013). “The Qualified Self”. Accessed 06.08.2014. URL:

Hagen, N. (2010). “From Biosociality to Digital Biosociality”. Accessed 06.08.2014. URL: http://tycho5s.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/from-biosociality-to-digital-biosociality/

Life Hacker (2014). “Five Best Self-Tracking Gadgets and Apps”. Accessed 06.08.2014. URL: http://lifehacker.com/5993005/five-best-sleep-tracking-gadgets-or-apps

Lupton, D. (2014). “Beyond the quantified self: the reflexive monitoring self”. Accessed 06.08.2014. URL: http://simplysociology.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/beyond-the-quantified-self-the-reflexive-monitoring-self/

Rabinow, P. (1996) “Artificiality and enlightenment: from sociobiology to biosociality” in Essays on the Anthropology of Reason. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rabinow, P. (2008). “Afterword –Concept work” in Gibbon, S. & Novas, C. Biosocialities, Genetics and the Social Sciences –Making Biologies and Identities. London: Routledge.

Williams, S.J. (2000). Chronic illness as biographical disruption or biographical disruption as chronic illness? Reflections on a core concept. Sociology of Health and Illness, 22(1), pp.40–67. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/1467-9566.00191.

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