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You’d Better Watch Yourself: The Rise of Modern Self-Monitoring

By Helen Lundell, Ethnographic Analyst

woman at the gymIf we buy the hype, we’re currently hearing the early rumblings of a self-tracking trend, a biomonitoring binge of life-logging, auto-analytics, body-hacking and self-quantifying. It’s a journey toward “self-knowledge through numbers” and even a “personal-data revolution.” If you’re not already a believer, you’ve certainly seen the signs: the rise of Fitbits, Nike Fuels and BodyBuggs, among others. 

We're starting to see these devices on consumers' wrists and waistbands, and it's not just among neurotic athletes eager to ensure they've run 10 miles rather than 9.97. Even mid-level health and wellness aspirants are intrigued to count their steps and their snores. But the question is, is it here to stay, and what difference will it make to consumers' interactions with food? 

The typical litany of monitoring options—steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned, hours and quality of sleep—may seem relatively disconnected from individual food product experiences, although they do have the potential to raise consumer awareness of just how long it actually takes to burn off that candy bar. It’s also possible that future generations of self-monitoring devices might draw a more direct connection between biometrics and food choices. 

Current tracking devices focus mostly on physical activity, diet and sleep, but the measuring tools take many forms, from cell phone apps to wearable devices (for example, the Fitbit) to Wii entertainment systems and implants that can take measurements internally. They are constantly developing and can measure many things, from apps that monitor arguments in couples at risk for domestic violence to a baby monitor that clips onto a special onesie that monitors the baby’s temperature, activity and sleep quality. 

Perhaps the most important question here is: why does anyone care about recording information about themselves anyway, and will it really catch on? It’s not an alien or novel impulse; keeping tabs on personal budgets, for example, has always helped uncover patterns and a platform from which to make decisions. Writing and reading personal diaries has always offered an intriguing portal to previous versions of ourselves, a strangely seductive experiment with identity. From these discoveries can come the potential for self-improvement. 

One of the biggest barriers to engaging in healthy behaviors that people face is the lag between behaviors and potential consequences; e.g., diabetes is the result not of one bad meal, but a pattern of behaviors over an extended period of time. Biomonitoring tools have the capacity to bring the consequences of unhealthy behavior right into the foreground, as consumers can watch the incremental changes in blood sugar, fitness, sleep quality and how they react to the food they’re eating. 

Walking an extra 10 paces a day feels like an irrelevant achievement until those extra 10 paces lie on a curve that rises consistently over the course of a year and results in a lower weight and greater muscle density. 

Similarly, biomonitoring adds a layer of accountability for every action, making it harder to ‘forget’ about a longer-term goal for a day or during a vacation, potentially serving as an ever-present visual conscience, reminding us of both our successes and our failures (if we choose to look at it, which many may not). 

The biomonitoring craze also resonates with the movement toward personalized health and wellness. No longer satisfied with population-level data and advice around “what works for most people,” people want to gather their own data sets to discover “what works for me.” In the field, we hear consumers talk more frequently about “mindfulness,” a concept derived from Buddhism that arrived in mainstream culture through yoga and meditation practices and which is now almost entirely secularized to mean simply a way for people to improve productivity, concentration and happiness. At its heart, it’s about being able to detach from the constant whirl of external stimuli, to pause and pay attention to what’s happening without judgment or guilt and to reconnect with your body in a way that reinstitutes your true priorities and guides your subsequent behaviors. That could be what the new monitoring devices help people do: offer support in separating aspirational behaviors from the constant, subjective buffeting of day-to-day life. On the other hand, the monitoring could represent a sneak attack on yourself, seeing what you do when you’re asleep or not paying close attention. 

The availability of all these new data also raises questions about privacy, from people’s concerns about whether they can be fired for a photo they post on Facebook to less control over personal stories we tell ourselves and others to whether health insurance companies will be able to access the data. Some argue the new data will promote development of a citizen science movement and growth in public savvy around data and statistics. However, it’s also easy to foresee data being poorly managed or falling into the “wrong” hands, which might lead to identification of non-statistically significant candidates for disease causation: imagine the impact of the public learning that lots of people who wear blue socks on Wednesdays later develop arthritis in their ankles, for example. 

It will be intriguing to see whether a faction of consumers eventually lashes back against biomonitoring, because they believe it alters their natural experience, gives them worrisome information they would rather not have or is another step toward disconnection from other people or from our own ability to listen and respond to our bodies. 

Ultimately, this is a trend that needs to be monitored—who is participating? Why? Is this a trend with traction? Is society, as a whole, becoming more self-aware? And, ultimately, how will the words the monitors whisper in our ears influence our purchase decisions? 


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As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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