Photo Lifelogging: Why I’m Skeptical
Would you wear a miniature camera on a necklace or clip that goes off automatically at certain intervals, producing a stream of oddly-angled pictures of whatever (or whoever) is in front of you? Would you wear it all day, every day, to create a visual record of how you’re spending your time?
There are at least two new cameras hitting the market later this year that are customized for this purpose: one from a Swedish company called Memoto (pictured below), and another in the UK called Autographer (above). And of course, the new Google Glass could be used the same way, with the added advantage of taking photos from eye level.
I saw several presentations on this subject at the recent Quantified Self conference in Amsterdam, and met some of the early adopters who have already been doing it with existing technology like the Microsoft Sensecam. Some are very persuasive, but I’m still a bit skeptical about the benefits of this practice and its potential to really spread.
Why? Because when they explain what they’re doing, “lifeloggers” tend to speak in terms of individual insight, reflection and recall — the kind of benefits you’d get from looking at your own photo stream. But few of them are keeping their photos for their own private viewing — they’re posting them on the internet, sharing them with friends, and talking about them in conference presentations.
Of course, the early adopters who evangelize a technology are naturally going to be more performative about it than the average user. But in this case, I suspect that this performative aspect is where most of the real appeal comes from.
And these new devices include features that facilitate that, by allowing users to censor — sorry, “curate” — their own photo streams. There’s a snooze button for when you’re using the bathroom, for example. They also have a GPS receiver that adds location-based functions, so that all the users at a particular event can pool their photos.
Many of the performative proto-lifelogging experiments I’ve seen are quite interesting (check out Buster Benson’s 8:36 project), but I suspect that the experience of early adopters is not at all representative of what it’ll be like for their followers.
First off, when more than a handful of people have these things, each person’s public photo stream (or whatever curated and/or annotated subset they choose to make public) is going to get a lot less attention. It doesn’t really matter whether the appeal to the “lifelogger” comes from pure attention-seeking or genuine social connection, because both of those rewards will drop off a cliff.
This is a problem for a number of self-tracking apps and gadgets that have social elements. For example, Runkeeper posts on Facebook when you’ve completed a run, with the idea that your friends will offer a word of encouragement, or at least notice and silently approve. And maybe it worked that way at the beginning. Today, I know I have a few Facebook friends who use Runkeeper, because I occasionally see “___ has completed a __km run in __ minutes” …but not only do I not register the distance or time, I don’t even know which friends they are.
It’s the same with anyone who “reviewed ___ on Amazon” or “hung out with ___” or “checked in at ___.” It doesn’t even register. And before you judge me for this, test yourself on it! You may find that just like me, you’re being unwittingly trained to ignore auto-posted content from apps.
There’s definitely a lag between the point where everyone stops noticing our shares and the point where we realize that and stop sharing, and in a sense this period is a win-win: you’re still getting the motivation that comes from public exposure, but no one else is expending any actual time or attention. But eventually it has to catch up.
Second, other people are more likely to put up with these cameras when they’re an interesting new gadget to learn about. Once the average person is familiar with the concept, their charmed curiosity about this clever toy will turn to annoyance at being photographed without prior consent for such a vague and dilettantish reason.
(Note the contrast to being captured by a surveillance camera, TV news camera or street photographer: you may not like it, but at least there’s a clear and relatable purpose.)
Part of this conference was a panel on the privacy implications of these devices and the changing social norms they represent, but I suspect these questions will turn out to be moot. I think what’ll happen, and it’s already happening with Google Glass, is that over time there’ll be fewer and fewer places where you’re comfortable wearing your auto-camera, because more people will find it aggressive, rude or (worse) just trite.
Lifeloggers worry about being asked to turn the camera off in bars or other social situations, but that’s the best-case scenario. What they should really be worried about is not being invited along to the bar in the first place because of their creepy camera. And however much they spent on the camera, however excited they were about it — I promise you that as soon as they feel like it’s having a negative impact on their social life, the average user will put it away.
And those situations where you can’t use your camera will be exactly the ones that you’d most want to capture, the ones that make you look (to yourself or others) like a fun and interesting person. Without them, your “stream” will be reduced to a depressing alternating sequence of your computer monitor at work and the steering wheel or train window from your commute. It won’t take much of that before the cameras go back on the shelf.
And that’s too bad, actually, because the idea of a private, non-performative, non-social photo stream is pretty interesting, and I think it could offer some real insight, just as a written journal does.
Maybe someone should make a special version of these cameras that deliberately makes it difficult to curate or share your content, one that you can’t easily turn off while you’re in the bathroom, that you can really only use for personal review. And then maybe the rest of us could learn to recognize this particular type of camera and be more tolerant of it. But without the appeal to vanity, how many of them would they really sell?