Blog Post

It’s not a fitness tracker, it’s a moral compass

I’m still waiting for the quantified-self apps to actually start providing useful information, but until that happens they still work really well as moral compasses.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the idea of the quantifed self movement. I’ve spent months over the past couple years meticulously documenting my every movement and bite of food with Fitbit (see disclosure). Most recently, I spent a month confirming my every move with Saga.

And although I enjoyed both for a while, the novelty eventually wears off and it just doesn’t seem worth the effort. The problem, as I’ve bemoaned before, boils down to this: If weight loss is your goal, you probably know to eat less (or better) and exercise more. If you travel a lot or spend a lot of time in bars, work or anywhere else, you’re probably aware of it.

Until they start actually correlating physical activity, work schedules or other things with, say, our mood or productivity, these apps are just visual representations of what we already know. Or are they?

Helpful reminders, or judgmental graphs?

At the very least, tracking our data seems like a good way to keep us on the straight and narrow. It’s like the computer is judging us, and we welcome it.

Ars Technica writer Casey Johnston wrote a post on Tuesday comparing three popular fitness trackers. After thousands of words on their pros and cons, she closed with a succinct statement that I think says a lot about why these devices are still so hot:

“Yes, a pedometer could have told me this, but could it also remind me I slept 12 hours like a log and ate a burger, fries, and milkshake for lunch, so I have every reason to not be just sitting here? I think not.”

My Fitbit food log from a year ago, turned into a word cloud.

Andy Hickl, co-founder and CEO of A.R.O, the startup that makes the Saga lifelogging app, touched on this in a different way during a recent call discussing the app’s new social sharing feature. He noted how he spent some late nights at bars during a business trip to Korea, something that seemed normal at the time (and probably was considering the circumstances) but appeared out of place when the app highlighted it. The next time Hickl went to Korea, he was cognizant of how much time he spent out on the town.

(You’d think sharing everyplace you visit throughout the course of a day would be reason enough to keep away from the strip club when you’re supposed to be out sick, but it turns out Saga lets users be rather selective in what they share. Your peers’ judgments are only a driver if you expressly allow them to be.)

Source: Flickr user Hikosaemon
Source: Flickr user Hikosaemon

I suppose there’s value in this. When I first got a hybrid car, I loved when the MPG display that pops up when I turned it off told me “Excellent.” I still try to drive a little more efficiently because of it.

On the other hand, I just ate 500 calories worth of bagel and peanut butter without batting an eye and have made an inordinate amount of visits to ice cream shops lately. Maybe I miss those little graphs more than I think I do.

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.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user gleepythehen; Korean bar image courtesy of Flickr user Hikosaemon.

2 Responses to “It’s not a fitness tracker, it’s a moral compass”

  1. Kap2008

    The most important thing is that these apps provide you with enough information to act on the data they are collecting. Most of them don’t seem to achieve that – they collect, collect, collect, but don’t do anything more.

    I’ve been using a new app this week I found on Reddit this weekend. Life Charge, it lets you track and then gives you a trend line. I’m hoping the trend line gives me an idea of patterns and things to hone in on. We’ll see.