Data versus Narratives in New Media Interactions

In 2005, Nicolas Felton’s most played artist was Cat Power. He took 3,754 digital photos. In 2008, he traveled 179 miles sporting a mustache. As of 2012, he had 157 different articles of clothing. Felton’s favorite food is sushi and he drinks a lot of Stella Artois (at least from 2005-2012).

I have never met Felton. I doubt I ever will. In fact, I didn’t know anything about him until yesterday. So how do I know so much (possibly too much) about him?

I’m not a stalker, I promise. Beginning in 2005, Felton began publishing an annual report about his self, gathering data and visualizing aspects of his life from that year in infographic form. The statistics he highlighted changed from year to year, but generally included categories about food and drink, physical activity, music, entertainment and travel. His annual reports can be found on his website.

In the FAQ page on his website, Felton explains that the Annual Reports began first as something he put together and distributed to family and friends. He soon found that complete strangers found it interesting, so he continued the project in the following years. From the popularity of his personal reports, he was inspired to co-found, a site that allows users to “collect and communicate the most important statistics of your life.”

When I was reading his reports, my first reaction was “so what?” Okay, they’re some nicely designed visualizations and aesthetically pleasing. It’s kind of interesting for me to know where he had his one New York street hot dog in 2008 (at Lafayette and Canal, if you’re curious). Beyond that though, I’m not terribly dying to know how many miles he traveled by subway versus walking, driving or taxi. But then I realized that many of us do this kind of thing on a daily basis through updating our statuses, tweeting and Instagram posts; Felton merely complied all his data for the year.

Felton’s Annual Reports and present examples of phenomena Vincent Miller explores in his article “New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture.” He claims that social media profiles have placed greater emphasis on the connections (“friends” or “followers”) and links than on the text of the author. He cites Andreas Wittel, who says that “social relations become primarily ‘informational,’ not ‘narrative’” and communications “become…more akin to an exchange of ‘data’ than deep, substantive or meaningful communication based on mutual understanding” (390). Indeed, on the surface, Felton’s reports seem to merely convey numbers, rather than “substantive or meaningful communication.” However, I think the format of his data as an infographic presents an interesting critique on Miller’s article.

Miller criticizes social media sites like Twitter, whose function is for maintaining a presences and therefore is “almost completely devoid of substantive content” (396). He is writing in 2008, when Twitter is just getting started, so I think he has a point, but I think that social media profiles and updates have the potential to have a narrative, rather than just a bunch of numbers.

In another course on infographics and data visualization, we talked about the DIKW pyramid, which stands for Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom. The concept behind the pyramid is that each section builds upon the previous; from interpreting data, we gain information, with information we gain knowledge and with knowledge we can achieve wisdom (if we’re lucky).

Thus on their own, I agree with Miller and I don’t think that Facebook statuses, “likes” and Twitter retweets amount to much. But if you gathered all this data we put out there on social media, like Felton did with his reports and his daily life, I think there’s potential to tell a greater story.

Source: Miller, Vincent. “New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture.” Convergence 14.4 (2008): 387-400. Web. 23 September 2013

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