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Mundane self-tracking: calorie counting practices with MyFitnessPal

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posted on 19.06.2018, 13:54 authored by Gabija Didziokaite
This thesis investigates self-tracking practices of users of MyFitnessPal calorie counting app. The thesis researches everyday self-trackers users who have started using the app on their own and are not part of any self-tracking community and focuses on the practices of self-tracking. The thesis responds to the literature on self-tracking that has often neglected everyday self-trackers and practices of self-tracking. First, many studies, whether sociological investigations or human-computer interaction research, focus on members of Quantified Self (QS) community (Choe, Lee, Lee, Pratt, & Kientz, 2014; Li, Dey, & Forlizzi, 2010; Neff & Nafus, 2015; Sharon & Zandbergen, 2016). QS is a community of individuals who are interested in learning more about themselves through, oftentimes unusual and complex, self-tracking, which involves modification of existing technologies or even creation of new ones. Thus, focusing on QS members neglects the individual everyday self-trackers, their experiences and practices. Second, existing studies have mainly focused on health or social implications of self-tracking (Lupton, 2012b, 2013d, 2014a, Swan, 2012b, 2013). These include, but are not limited to, potential of self-tracking to assist diagnosis (Wile, Ranawaya, & Kiss, 2014), or behaviour change (Chiauzzi, Rodarte, & Dasmahapatra, 2015), self-tracking increasing surveillance, public pedagogy (Rich & Miah, 2014) and subjection to neoliberal values and promotion of healthism (Lupton, 2012b, 2013a) or leading to monetisation of exercise (Till, 2014). While these studies have yielded important insights, they do not help us to understand what people actually do when they self-track, i.e. what practices self-tracking involves and how people engaged in self-tracking manage them. Guided by the STS approach that highlights the importance of observing the mundane practices and need to focus on technology users, this thesis explores the practices of everyday self-trackers. The exploration of the practices of self-tracking among the everyday self-trackers is based on 31 interviews with early mid-life individuals, who were mainly recruited from gyms and shared their self-tracking experience of using the MyFitnessPal calorie counting app. The analytical chapters answer three questions: What is self-tracking by calorie counting in the everyday like? How is self-tracking by calorie counting done? What are the practices through which self-tracking affects those engaged in it? To answer the first question, I juxtapose self-tracking goals, use and effects as they are represented in the literature on the QS to those of my participants. Doing this reveals that self-tracking in the everyday is perceived and done quite differently than the QS metaphor would allow us to believe. The goals of the participants are mundane (weight loss), they do not use the sophisticated features of the app and are not interested in the historical data, the effects of the app are not life-changing and temporary closely tied to the use of the app. This stands in contrast to QS metaphor where self-tracking is geared towards continuous self-improvement, driven by intricate data analysis and biohacking. To answer the second question, I focus on self-tracking by calorie counting with MyFitnessPal as a dieting practice. I explore how self-tracking affects the daily practices as well as is incorporated in participants lives. The users, thus, aim to find an approach to temporal aspects of tracking and precision that would fit most conveniently with their other daily practices. They manipulate their use of the app to accommodate any meals that are not in their usual dieting routine. This highlights that dieting through self-tracking is not a straightforward data collection and involves practical strategies and negotiations, and can both influence and be influenced by other everyday practices. The third question focuses on quantification, that is the production and communication of numbers (W. N. Espeland & Stevens, 2008, p. 402). Quantification has usually been discussed at institutional levels, in terms of government, science or, in the case of Espeland and Sauder s (W. N. Espeland & Sauder, 2007) seminal work, in terms of academic rankings. I adopt the insights from these studies to make sense of the quantification at the individual level using MyFitnessPal. I draw out two features of individual quantification that distinguish it from institutional one, mainly that quantification is done for oneself only and it relies on self-governance. Further, I outline how quantification affects such decisions as whether to eat, what to eat and how much to eat. Quantification also works as commensuration as participants compared different foods referring to their calorie value. However, unlike in the case of institutional quantification, individual quantification did not have to be accepted unquestionably and often other values of food would be weighted in relation to calories when participants made choices what to eat. Ultimately, this thesis contributes a new perspective on self-tracking as it explores the mundanity of it. It adds fine-grained insights into the everyday practices of self-tracking by adopting a novel analytical angle that centres on practices and by exploring a neglected user group of everyday self-trackers.


Loughborough University (Research Studentship).



  • Social Sciences


  • Communication, Media, Social and Policy Studies


© Gabija Didziokaite

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.