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Mar 25, 2009

New Web tools allow you to track the details of your life and share them with the world. But do you really want to?

By Amy Van Vechten

“Data doesn’t lie.”
Do you know how long it’s been since you last had sex? Where it took place, and how long it lasted? Do you even care?
Chris Messina and Brynn Evans, a young couple in California, believe that knowing everything about their sex life—and, in fact, everything they do on a day-to-day basis—is crucial to their relationship.
Messina, a Web entrepreneur, and Evans, who studies cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, say it’s the only true way to have realistic insight into their own behaviors.
“Perception is faulty, and selective memory changes organic experience,” Messina explains. “Data, on the other hand, doesn’t lie. When you have the real numbers, you can determine what you do on a regular basis, and what can get in the way of what you want to be doing.”
After a previous relationship ended over disagreements about sex, Messina decided that he and his partner should know what was actually happening. He and Evans registered at a Web site called BedPosted, and began to record details of their sex lives.
The couple now tracks many of their daily activities. When they’re traveling, they “check in” their locations on the site BrightKite.
They also plot data about how long they sleep, what they eat, what they do at the gym, how their moods fluctuate and how much time they spend on the phone. They believe the more details they collect, the better they will know each other.
Others use online tracking for health reasons. Alexandra Carmichael, a scientist based in Mountain View, Calif., suffers from a number of chronic health conditions. In August 2008, she co-founded CureTogether to help people anonymously track and compare health data. She tracks over 40 things about her health daily, both on CureTogether and through the use of Google spreadsheets.
“I wanted to understand how to track myself and then pass it on to millions of others out there like me,” Carmichael wrote via email. “Since I’ve started tracking, I’ve become hyper-aware of everything that happens in my body every day. So it helps me get a good overall sense of where I’m out of balance and then take action to correct it.”
Online tracking activity is growing steadily. Twitter, which only had 500,000 visits a month in the beginning of 2008, now gets over 7 million. LinkedIn, a Web site for career and employment networking, has doubled its members in the last year. Even smaller sites are growing. For example, Gyminee, which lets users track workouts and diets, has grown from 10,000 to 70,000 members over the past 14 months.
The fact that some people spend hours a day collecting data might seem excessive. But some psychologists say the desire to self-reflect is innate. Online tracking is simply a new form of what diarists have been doing for centuries.
“Part of understanding ourselves is self-reflection, and these technologies enable that,” says psychologist Dr. Adam N. Joinson, author of Understanding the Psychology of Internet Behaviour: Virtual Worlds, Real Lives. “Although the fact that a lot of this information is becoming public is of slight concern, because it is very difficult to introspect in the public gaze.”
Since the advent of Web cams, Joinson has been fascinated by the online projection of individuals’ daily activities. Gordon Bell, a programmer for Microsoft, was one of the first to make this habit famous when he started wearing a sense camera that would automatically post a photo of what he was doing every 30 seconds on the Web.
“I don’t think it’s anything strange, but it’s not mainstream either,” says Dr. Graham Jones, a psychologist specializing in behavior and the Internet. “Some people might think that if you’re tracking absolutely everything you’re doing that you’ve got some kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. But that’s probably not the case. We like doing it because it’s fun, it’s interesting, and it’s experimental.”
Carmichael agrees. “For me, it’s mostly just a useful tool,” she says. “It can get addictive at times. But as long as it’s benefiting my health and well-being, where’s the harm?”
Unfortunately, there is an answer to that question. Angela Baxley, a product designer, offers a word of warning. “I know people who have gotten their house broken into. They had public feeds on one of the location sites, so you have to be careful.”

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