Crowdsourcing our personal life, 24×7

Personal as Performance

Being social today is best listed out in four keywords that can be represented as a circle: being social involves making the personal public; second, it means documenting and archiving what is public; and finally, social involves crowdsourcing – recycling the public back into the personal space.

The cycle I just described would actually be part of mass culture barely two decades ago but is now a given in the personal life of a digital native. Our preferences for products, the places we visit or the conversations we have with friends were never ‘formulated’ in isolation, however, for the digital native, it’s all a public spectacle that gets talked, commented, flagged, shared and voted upon continuously.

The ‘app’ market is a place that magnifies this spectator-performance relationship, as if we are on stage performing to a crowd. I recently came across an app for Android that let’s you track your exercise, weight and food intake schedule across a fixed number of days and then share it on Facebook or Twitter (if you want to). What would prompt me to publicize my exercise regimen or the number of sandwiches I gulped in a day to my followers? The incentives to share are remarkably non-monetary and unmeasurable; there is no reward or points gained to share updates of your exercise routine with the world, however, it’s a normative behavior to inform your wall, board and blank box that you are up to ‘something’.

Never Miss Another Moment

Proust is a web app that allows you to record your memories online, beginning from your earliest recollections to your most recent, divided as per the stages of your life. The Austin, Texas-based Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has released Ed-Fi data standard that allows educators and colleges to track student records from an ATM-like machine, from KG up to high school.  Then you have Capture, who’s tagline runs like this: Never miss another moment! Capture is like a record button for your home screen. It immediately starts recording video after launch and saves the video to your Camera Roll after it quits. This is ably assisted by Broadcaster, a social-media platform for location-based audio. “Our free app lets people easily create and share recordings on an interactive map. Users share oral histories, restaurant reviews, walking tours, citizen journalism, personal messages, funny anecdotes, and more.”

Online Leveraging Mechanism

If it wasn’t enough to just share your activities online, we have apps and platforms that encourage you to ‘measure’ the influence of your avatar. Number of followers? Oh that’s passe. The new social-media influence calculators cull data from all your messages, tweets and updates and let you know how powerful your cyber social status is. Check out Empire Ave, that plugs itself as the Social Stock Market, where you can grow your social capital online. Here’s how it works: You discover people online and then based on scores or share price invest virtual currency in their profiles by buying shares in the Social Stock Market. And there is Klout and PeerIndex, which measure your influence on your followers.

These apps don’t explain ‘why’ you need to measure your influence. The apps don’t come with any disclaimers that mention the lack of any legitimate value or use of their products. Once again, the marketing department and digital media simply advertise the “coolness” of a new app release and pretend as if it’s the next best thing to hit our social lives – our cyber social lives that is.

Feeding Frenzy

I have listed but a fraction of the millions of apps available for free that will take the thinking, planning and doing out of your hands. You only have to download and install and set the ‘start’ button, the rest is outsourced to your digital assistants. There is an app that calculates the number of glasses of water you require in a day, and another that allow you to outsource your laundry, bill and car service chores to ‘helper bunnies” while you are running late for work. Of course, you have a whole bunch of fun, useless and silly apps that are designed for that ’99 cents download’ bait: enough downloads means enough money to cover the cost of creating the app.

Image courtesy: ajrl475.wordpress.comWhat happens next? Now that I have all these apps downloaded on my mobile phone, I spend a lot of waking moments tracking my activities on them. Are the clouds foggy enough on my weather app? Have I taken enough screen break from my computer, reminds another app on my phone. I guess when a notepad and pen for a to-do list worked for me at one point, why and how did I get so dependent on my apps to keep my life functional? The trick is with the user interface, the really cool sounds and animation that entice me to spend some more time with the program. 

The reality now is that for every app, wall or blank box created, there are equal millions of users impatient to fill it up with micro-details and share. Everyone wants to be heard, everyone has something clever, momentous or significant happening in their life. ‘What are you doing’ and ‘What’s up’ are cues for us to open up, speak out and make meaning out of our meaningless routines. Our routines are given significance because others acknowledge it, comment about it and give us further cues and messages that reinforce ideas about ourselves. Apps are relationship conduits in essence, marking our moments, our dialogues, our expressions and imprints, both online and offline.

In essence, if we have outsourced our life to apps and apps in turn crowdsource information from the public, are we looking at a future where the personal is not only about being social, but also about being public 24×7? If apps run our lives for us – work, love, prayer (yes, we have virtual blessings now!), sports and games, homework, career choices – what are we doing here?  

– Nilofar Ansher


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