My friend, Kevin Kelly, coined the term quantified self in October of 2007 with this blog post. In the in six years since, the fruits of such self quantification can now be found on the TV, the radio, and all over the internet. Let’s take stock and explore how the concept of the quantified self has grown from a small idea to national movement.
Kelly argued that the question of who we are — and more importantly, what it means to be a human person — is central to our experience of technology these days. He thinks that the answers to big existential questions will be found in the personal. As he wrote, “real change will happen in individuals as they work through self-knowledge.”
Kelly also proposed a starter list of quantified self categories, including but not limited to: chemical body load counts, personal genome sequencing, lifelogging, self-experimentation, location tracking, digitizing body info, sharing health records, psychological self-assessments, and medical self-diagnostics.
We have since witnessed real progress in each of those buckets, including Tim Ferris’ Four Hour Body experiments and Shine’s beautiful activity monitor. We’ve seen Scanadu’s proposed medical “tricorder” and pure software plays like smartphone app Saga. And that’s just scratching the surface. Self-tracking today is a full-blown industry.
Which is why it’s time for the quantified self world to start contracting, with roll-up style M&A the most likely lever of change.
Certain brands have equity enough to take the quantified self outside of the insular quantified-self movement and into the mass market. Certain startups have the necessary capital, or backing. As a consumer, the choices available are maddening.
The pure software side of the equation is even more convoluted, with dozens of offerings from small and large companies alike elbowing their way to the front of the line for my attention (of which there is little).
It’s time for a winner, or two.
Some have suggested that Apple’s iWatch will soon descend, and do what Apple is inordinately good at doing — taking the best of what’s already out there and doing it better than anyone thought possible.
I think Apple will put forth a very compelling offering, but I don’t think that Apple is a brand that consumers can commit their personal data to fearlessly. I am of the strong opinion that a newer brand will emerge victorious — a brand whose business is core to the vision of the quantified self, and not a bolted-on business pursued out of evolutionary necessity.
The second phase of the market
I believe that “lifelogging” is the strongest root term available to the quantified self movement and all its facets. But in the second phase of this market, our vocabulary must evolve if there’s to be any hope of broader adoption.
The “self” is too narrow. The quantified self movement isn’t about me, explicitly — I care dramatically more about what all of the past, present and future “me” amounts to. We’re looking at a new oral tradition — the sum and summary of my life. It’s my story, spoken through data and technology.
The “quantified” word suggests enumeration, which is an input, but not an output (and outputs are where the most interesting stuff happens). “Logging” likewise implies input only, the act of collecting of data — warehousing, in short.
So what are the outcomes and outputs? How much of our exhaust data actually tells something non-obvious? What am I doing with all this data, other than gazing lovingly towards it?
Anyone who has played with this stuff for a period of time starts asking the same questions. Data is just data. It becomes an order of magnitude more interesting when a story takes form.
Building a story
Lifestreaming is next. Anyone who follows my writing on the subject of streams knows how central I think streams are to any future vision of the Web. The term “lifestreaming” enjoyed a short moment in the sun back when Justin.tv was hitting a (well-deserved, if fleeting) inflection point. I think the term can be reclaimed and re-oriented. Streaming implies the act of taking the self outside of the self — of sharing my life with others. That’s what most B2C technology amounts to. Sharing is essential to collective experience.
We want to be authentic with friends and family. We want to be digitally intimate. Whereas lifelogging signals aggregation, lifestreaming suggests openness and sharing.
If new filters emerge that sit between private and public data, all the better. It’s my argument that the all the quantified self data in the world amounts to very little until it’s put into the context of the other human lives I care about.
The next phase of the quantified self movement erodes the navel-gazing instinct for the better. Get over yourself. This is the part where Kelly got it wrong. Real change happens faster from collective knowledge (the global brain) than it does purely, isolated self-knowledge. And the best insights still come from colliding heterogeneous data sets, not beautifying homogenous ones.
This fact is an even more compelling reason for the market to coalesce around 1 or 2 players. Moves has an API but I don’t think that’s enough — co-locating data is just more aggregation, with less friction.
Buy, buy, buy
For starters, I think that Saga should buy Narrative (formerly known as Memoto. That combination would be killer. For one, Saga has a great brand. I love the name. It has raised significant capital. It has partnered with the right people in the space, including Jawbone, Fitbit (see disclosure), Withings, and WolframAlpha. It’s ready to show us the way.
But more importantly, at least in my own personal experience, it has the technological backbone necessary to make this all happen.
If you’re not familiar, Saga tracks your location ambiently. It is uncannily accurate, and it is incredibly frugal on battery life. Most importantly, you can follow other users’ Saga for an unusual view onto their real-world adventures, and you can publish curated Sagas (comprised of multiple moments in time) to the web for anyone to enjoy, chronicling birthdays, pub crawls, sporting events and more — the mundane and the extraordinary alike.
Narrative, the automatic lifelogging camera, has been regrettably slow to put product in hands but it’s a really compelling piece of hardware, more so than most others in my opinion. It gives you a searchable and shareable photographic memory. Inserting Instagram photos interstitially into your lifestream is one thing, but Narrative is, like Vine before it, a new kind of media in my mind, and uniquely suited to a quantified life. It is ambient, proactive, unobtrusive, and always-on.
Narrative would give Saga a sexy hardware play, and Saga would give Narrative both a mainstream brand and a creative platform for this new mode of storytelling.
This idea is timely too — Narrative just raised $3 million on the strength of its pre-sales, and rebranded with a name that speaks to the same notion of a data-driven oral history that Saga likewise evokes.
I’m sure there are a lot of other interesting combination out there however, and I’d love to hear yours. Maybe if we’re convincing enough, these companies will take action!
Who else do you think is an early winner, and would do well to go on a spending spree? What quantified self, wearable, and lifelogging matches are made in heaven?
Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.