Would You Track Your Health on Facebook?

I was curious to see if I was the only one crazy enough to share my health data publicly, so last week I posted two questions as my Facebook status. “Would you track your health on Facebook (weight, calories, sleep, exercise) for all your friends to see?”, followed by “What if it was completely private for only you to see?”

The answers I got surprised me. I didn’t expect 26 people to reply. I didn’t expect such detailed opinions. I didn’t expect the answer to be a resounding, 70% yes.

Facebook poll 1.png

Let me clarify that these are not QS enthusiasts. I asked all my Facebook friends because I think they represent the general Facebook population – only two dedicated self-trackers replied. It got even more interesting when I broke down the responses down by gender and privacy options.

facebook poll 2.png

Now I need to qualify this a bit. I know 26 responses doesn’t represent a statistically significant sample size by any means. Also, there was an unequal number of women (16) and men (10). Still, it’s an interesting discussion starter. It makes me want to know if there really is a gender difference. Are women more reluctant to share tracking information publicly? And more broadly, is there a gender bias in the act of tracking itself? Do women track themselves more or less than men do? Do they track different things?

Another surprise was the range and passion of replies, from “no way!’ to “I would love that!”, and everywhere in between. Here are some of the comments I found most interesting, in no particular order.


“I would keep stuff like basic fitness info on something like facebook.  I wouldn’t trust medical info here.”

“Public daily measurement is an interesting way to keep you on your diet/exercise plan/meditation schedule, but most people probably want to share the social/personal significance of the data rather than the data itself. e.g. “Mike lost 2 lbs this week! Now he’s 10% of the way to his goal!” rather than daily weight variation.”

“don’t mind anyone seeing this info …it’s just the job of collecting it”

“On one hand, I don’t think my “friends” care what I weigh, etc., though I don’t mind sharing this info with them. In fact, I’d expect some might find this level of personal disclosure somewhat creepy and odd. Developing flexible privacy and data-sharing controls for both the information sharer and recipient will be important.

On the other hand, I’d like to make this info available to researchers and those developing applications for new forms of health monitoring systems. Facebook seems to have emerged as the current leading platform for social networking. It provides a strong platform for application developers to build tools for new types of interaction and collaboration. So, I hope that my participation on the cutting edge of health information monitoring will lead to beneficial new forms of medical practice.

I think social networking enables a new form of participatory science, which is more than passive observation. It allows for real-time feedback, social reinforcement for participants from trusted sources, and dynamically configurable experiments, which can lead to real-world outcomes.”

“I don’t think I would be comfortable doing this. I don’t trust that anything you put on facebook is completely private. I do like the idea though.”

“For what reason exactly? In the interest of being proactive about my health? Would there be a benefit to allowing people to see this info?”

“the caloric intake measure is hard for me…I’m more of a guestimator with food.  I’m not sure I’d like everyone to see my weight on here either.  Perhaps good motivation, but still.   I’d rather have a smaller community know about that (I’m not really a Biggest Loser reality show kind of person).”

“yes — would love to be able to add categories of things to track
and add and remove permissions easily — would rather share a report
than the data”

“to me it’s a simple layer of accountability, like going to the gym with a buddy versus going by yourself. Visibility=incentive. Imagine how many pushups I would do if I did…like at Cross Country practice – team pushing me, not just me+1, 2

here is where economies of scale, intertwining of cyborg lifestyle and quantity+content of connections have perfect opp to mashup”

“Only if I could lie.”


What did I learn from this exercise? The biggest issues raised were privacy and meaning. People wanted to decide WHO got to see which parts of their data. They also wanted to explore WHY they should track themselves and what benefits they would derive. Two people questioned the logistics of how to track. Almost half of the respondents expressed a general mistrust of Facebook in terms of privacy controls.

What else did I learn? Well, maybe I’m not so crazy after all. :)

Now it’s time to open this up for the QS community to weigh in… Would YOU track your health on Facebook? Post your comments below.

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10 Responses to Would You Track Your Health on Facebook?

  1. Michael P. Gusek says:

    While your results are telling, the sample size is taken from a population of respondents who are your (Facebook) friends. The dilution of the positive outcome for your claim, while interesting, may be due to people who are like-minded or people who are seeking to be like-minded.
    I’d be interested to see a full population study…Including those who do not use the internet yet.

  2. Mike says:

    Agree with the comment from other Mike. Interesting post. What a great study to undertake.

  3. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Thanks Mike and Mike for your comments. Yes, the results are only applicable to people who are already on Facebook. I am very liberal in adding friends (400 or so), so I’m fairly sure they’re not all like me. But yes, a larger study would be interesting.
    A somewhat contradictory finding of this survey was that although 70% of respondents said they would track their health on Facebook, fully 50% of respondents expressed privacy concerns. My hypothesis is that in the larger, non-Facebook, non-Internet population, the privacy concerns would be even greater.
    I was also interested to see that not a single Quantified Self reader responded to the question posted in this post. Perhaps this is not surprising, if many readers are already tracking themselves with a custom/proprietary system, reluctant to switch until a compelling, flexible alternative presents itself. As one QS member wrote in to me,
    “Maybe, if it was easy. My spreadsheet works pretty well. Also, I’m not sure what the benefit would be of others seeing my quantified-self system (beside other QS people) and most of my friends wouldn’t really benefit except perhaps as fodder for their amusement at my expense. ;)

  4. Gary Wolf says:

    Maybe QS readers are just lazy about posting comments! I know my “intend to comment” score and “actually commented” score correlate predictably, but not encouragingly. As is obvious, I’m fascinated by the question of what it takes to make self-tracking easy, useful, and popular, and I’ve tried a number of different methods. I am still using a spreadsheet right now because it is actually simpler than any other system I’ve tried. On this trip I didn’t take my computer, since I now use my phone for email/web access, and so I am storing my blood pressures in the new Zuri app for the iPhone, but for now this is mainly a recording medium; I intend to re-enter these on my spread sheet when I’m home.
    I would probably not do this on Facebook unless the app were perfect – privacy concerns are perhaps the best loose way to explain why, but it is not privacy in the classic sense of not wanting to expose my blood pressure but privacy in the sense of not thinking of my data as a form of self-expression; it is too raw, too meaningless, at least as I currently understand it.

  5. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Thanks Gary! I’m fascinated by your comment about not seeing your data as a form of self-expression.
    For me, publishing my data is a very vulnerable act. As such, for me, it definitely qualifies as an expression of my most intimate self. For me putting my weight and caloric intake on display took a good deal of courage, to be honest. Whether this is due to gender difference or my own peculiar insecurities, I don’t know.
    Another level of self-expression is defining myself as someone who tracks, with all of the colorful comments that invites. :)

  6. Faren says:

    Great questions, great idea, and thanks for publishing the results. I found the comments especially entertaining! I must have missed the original survey on FB, so I’m going to answer your question here as an SQ’er instead.
    I definitely would track my weight, calories, exercise, and sleep publicly online. 1) Because I currently don’t have any insecurities with those categories, 2) I’m not worried about my insurance discriminating with this kind of detail, and 3) Because I think it would make me more accountable (even if no one cared, the potential would be there to root me on OR poke fun when I was slacking).
    What would stop me? I already track so many things. If it could just be automatically uploaded without additional work, I would do it. I think this is an obstacle for many people (current trackers, or would-be future trackers): Ease and effectiveness. I’d like to develop the streaming wifi tools/wearable devices we need to make it global. The technology already exists, it’s just a matter of packaging in a cost-effective way for the common public.

  7. Jan Whitaker says:

    Interesting informal study, Alexandra. Thanks for sharing it.
    I have a bias as I’m involved with the Australian Privacy Foundation, and am particularly interested in the sub area of personal health information. I’ve advised a privacy focused email list here about your article, so you may get some more readers as a result.
    As for putting my personal health data on Facebook, I think it depends on what is included in ‘health data’. That is much too broad a category, and is often a flaw in the study of these possibilities. I notice that many people seem to be interpreting it as something to do with diet management or fitness. I wonder if the 50% who didn’t express privacy concerns would feel the same if the information was about their sexual health, mental health or some chronic disease.
    Who can access someone’s personal health information is often a sticking point as well. If you’re interested in online health info storage, search for Microsoft’s Health Vault. I believe Google is also developing a health info store, but can’t recall the name of it at this time.
    I hope more readers of your blog contribute and tease apart some of the major areas. It’s not at all a simple proposition. I’ve been thinking about this area of e-health for about 10 years and it’s still not clear to me.
    Best regards
    Jan Whitaker
    Australian Privacy Foundation

  8. Jake says:

    FYI, there’s no such thing as a “statistically significant sample size”. You’re actually running into two problems here: 1. I doubt you had a statistical significance in your results (this is related to the difference detected *and* the sample size) and 2. The sample is atrociously nonrandom, since it’s easy to imagine a pattern of difference between any individual’s group of friends on facebook and the larger facebook population.
    Perhaps KK should include more stats and research methods-focused articles to help folks be better consumers of the data they are producing?
    FYI, one very cheap stat tool you might want to consider is statcrunch.com (around $20 a year thanks to its original NSF funding).

  9. John Sumser says:

    I asked my universe of Facebook friends the same question. That group is basically zen students, HR people and family.
    I got 15 responses.
    All of them were a resounding “No”. Where there were detailed comments, they involved privacy issues.
    I am fascinated by the astonishing value of self-measurement. It’s something I’ve done all of my life (well, at least the past 35 years). But, like may geeky things I love, large scale adoption will involve more than pure functionality.
    Just being able to do it is not enough. The development work that is being partially documented here is essential. But, it’s really a marketing problem once the bugs are worked out of the core processes.

  10. Charles says:

    I began pondering this idea recently when our family was down for a few days with a stomach virus. Without understanding the deeper principles of QS, making this kind of information available in close social networks makes a lot of sense: from shared stories on how to deal with seasonal illnesses “coming down the pipe”, to collective reasoning about how to avoid particular illnesses, etc. I’m sure this kind of information happens implicitly on any number of facebook/twitter groups. Perhaps quantifying what the health-privacy concerns are would be a big contribution.

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