Examining implications of self-tracking on the individual in digital societies: A case study on Strava and gamification practices

In this paper, we will explore how the Online Social Fitness Network (OSFN) Strava affects users’ motivation and activities, as well as the probable implications emerging from such user practices. 

Socrates said that self-knowledge is the start of all true knowledge and Swiestra (2015) points out that the way we view our world is increasingly challenged by science and technology (p. 11). With the advent of apps, much attention has been paid to the phenomenon of health self-tracking, as software and wearable devices are designed to enable people to monitor and measure details about their bodies. In this way, humans seek autonomy by drawing conclusions based on statistical representations of their minds and bodies. All the more so, sports such as running, cycling and swimming have become gamified and therefore opened up space for discourse and interaction among users, in terms of their practice (Rivers, 2020, p. 1). Such an example is the Online Social Fitness Network (OSFN) Strava.

    The concept of the “Quantifying Self”, has drawn the interest of several scholars, regarding the effects of self-tracking technologies on the individual and society. Belliger and Krieger suggest the term “Qualified Self” (2016, p. 1). They claim that self-tracking is a stepping stone towards self-knowledge and self-responsibility. In contrast, others focus on the dangers of surveillance and the psychological burden emerging out of such technologies (e.g. Lupton, 2019). This controversy paves the way for discussions around self-tracking practices and their implications on individuals and digital society. 

    My goal is to understand the effect of self-tracking on individuals and society and the extent to which interactive tracking practices can motivate users towards exercise participation, thus narrowing it down to the question: How does participation in Strava shape users’ actions and motivation and what implications can be drawn from this user practice for digital societies?

   To answer the research question in a structured manner, the paper is divided into the following parts: Firstly, a short description of the OSFN will be provided. Following, the semi-structured qualitative interview as a way to view Stava’s self-tracking practices from the user’s perspective will be introduced. Then, a literature review on the different perspectives around the question will be presented, to help establish an academic framework for the paper and provide grounds for the subsequent discussion of the empirical data (the interview) conducted. I will conclude summarising my results and providing an answer to my research question.

Strava as an Online Social Fitness Network (OSFN)

   The Online Social Fitness Network (OSFN) Strava provides users with a wide range of mediated communities or channels alongside gamified services (Rivers, 2020, p.1). Users are situated in a digital context, in which their data metrics related to performance (e.g. average speed, total exercise time, route statistics, etc.) are depicted as data plots and annotated route maps which can be shared in their profiles and, simultaneously, in the groups they are part of. Mattias von Entress (2019) argues that “Gamification can be reached by integrating game mechanics or elements and game dynamics” aiming to motivate users’ participation and exercise (p. 5) Therefore, users can both track themselves and interact with each other, by approving of self-control, courage and persistence in sports, also known as sportsmanship (Rivers, 2020, p. 3).


   It is essential to investigate the constant correlation between our moral standards and practices (Swiestra, 2015, p. 11) by conducting a semi-structured qualitative interview, which, according to Hermanovicz, “brings us arguably closer than many other methods to an intimate understanding of people and their social worlds”. 

   The interviewee, Thanos, is a 28-year-old former professional cyclist who has been using Strava on a daily basis for several years, primarily for running, and is part of a range of Strava’s communities. Thanos tracks his activity and then shares his performance in his public profile in Strava. This makes Thanos a prime candidate to investigate the impact of self-tracking in combination with peer to peer engagement functions of this platform on users’ activity.

   To profoundly investigate the concept of how this self-tracking social fitness platform affects people’s actions on a personal and social level, I chose to combine my interview with a small digital ethnography by which researchers can digitally track or observe digital communities through a “mediated contact” (Pink et al. 2016, p. 3). This is based on Thanos’ activity within Strava and on a community-group which he is part of and whose members share the same educational background. 

   Of course, a qualitative interview always comes with some limitations. Although, through this method, a more profound insight into first-hand user practice is provided, I have only interviewed one person and observed one Strava group. Therefore, it should be taken into account that the results might not apply to all examples in a broader debate. What’s more, the process of coding and interpreting is never free of bias and subjectivity, given, according to Saldaña (2016, p. 4), the researchers’ filtered perceptions, and the choice of an interviewee with a comparative better knowledge of the specific practice. Nevertheless, this interview can provide an example of how self-tracking applications can have an effect on users’ real life. 

Literature review

   In this section, I will first present and analyse different positions and concepts around self-tracking and its implications, based on previous studies and literature.

   Swiestra (2015) distinguishes between hard and soft impacts of technologies on our lives. Hard impacts are described as rather calculable risks, meaning that the harm can be expressed in quantitative ways (p. 6), while soft impacts are defined as subtle and “ambiguous” shifts in society, such as technology-inflicted impacts on values, relationships and actions (p. 10). Swiestra argues that technology does not “cause” but “provokes” moral shifts, since “technology and morality mutually shape each other”, the phenomenon called technomoral change (p. 11). In our case, users’ practices play an essential role in co-generating technology-inflicted changes in society (p. 7).

   In order to discuss positive and skeptical positions on self-tracking, it is helpful to follow Lupton’s (2016) distinction of five self-tracking modes and present the scholars’ views in detail. The five modes are: the private, the pushed, the imposed, the communal and the exploited.

   The private self-tracking mode refers to self improvement by voluntary self monitoring (Lupton, 2016, pp. 105-106); Ruckenstein, Gilmore, and Belliger and Krieger consider that self-tracking enhances self-reflection and thus leads users to responsible living with greater control over themselves and their performance. Gilmore (2016) supports that users gain control over their bodies, by using a “technological mediator” (p. 2529) and are, therefore, encouraged to reach and support their goals towards a healthier lifestyle. On the contrary, Lupton (2016) discusses the implications of selfhood and citizenship caused through “dataveillance” (p. 101) as the “digital surveillance”. In contrast to Ruckenstein (2013), who supports that the interaction with their datafied representations encourages users to change bad habits towards healthier practices (p. 73), she underlines the new technology-inflicted issues regarding the use of users’ personal information about their lives and bodies (2016, p. 104) and highlights that people start viewing themselves as a manipulatable project that needs to be constantly worked on (p. 115).

   Lupton (2016) also presents the pushed self-tracking mode, referring to tracking due to external motivations (pp. 107-108) (e.g. in “patient self-care”) and the mode of imposed self-tracking (p. 110) (e.g. working environment). She argues that the integration of self-tracking in social areas may shift the “ethical” idea of self-improvement into an area of external control.

   Communal self-tracking implies the use of social media networks and interaction among users (e.g. Strava), (Lupton, 2016, p. 109). Belliger and Krieger state that datafied representation of one’s progress in social networks of self-tracking allow their assembled information to “be compared, evaluated, correlated, and allowed to flow through networks” (2016, p. 38). Here is where gamification as a motivation to improve the performance applies. Particularly, the concept of challenge and the idea of reward let people perceive ordinary activities as tasks to be accomplished and thus shape behavioural changes in terms of their progress (Gilmore, 2016, p. 2528; p. 1; Ruckenstein, 2013, p. 77). The sense of competition is enhanced when people share their performance and even compare to other users’ progress (Stockinger et al., 2014, p. 5). All the more so, Gilmore (2016, p. 2532) and Stockinger et al. (2014, p. 8) point out that gamification through social features empower users’ experience and stimulate long term use. Similarly, Rivers agrees that Strava’s “socio-discursive practices” (2020, p. 3) prompt users’ participation.

   The exploited mode of self-tracking where the personal data might be used for commercial reasons beyond the privatised realm, (Lupton, 2016), bears implications on “privacy threats involved with uploading personal data from self-tracking devices or social media platforms to the computing cloud” (p. 111). According to Lupton, these technologies may help users enhance “self-awareness and self-entrepreneurialism” (p. 113). However, they lead them to unaware exposure to risks due to data usage by third parties (p. 111), let alone the future inevitable implementation of such “sensor-equipped” devices (p. 118). Similarly, Marres (2017) sees digital social features critically. She argues that they can be considered as a way to monitor social activities and make use of assembled data towards commercial and “research purposes” (pp. 52, 54).

   Lastly, in 2019 Lupton argues that self-tracking may also lead to frustration and disappointment, due to the effort required to engage with an app or practice and the lack of ability to handle the results of users’ datafied performance (pp. 76-77). Sharon’s (2017) reflection on this, is that depending on how specifically and in which context self-tracking is used, users can either enjoy more capacities or encounter limitations and constraints, the so called “agential capacities”. These emerge from the relational connections between humans and nonhumans, their bodies and their health state, and motivate users to keep investing in their self-tracking practices (Lupton, 2019, p. 67).

Data presentation and Analysis

   To get a better understanding of what type of user the interviewee was, questions were asked regarding his engagement with self-tracking as a practice and the reasons behind the decision to start tracking himself. Thanos used to track himself since he was a professional cyclist, that means for around a decade, starting with offline ways (e.g. log book) “I always used to track my rides. I used to keep a log book containing distance, type of exercise, average heart beat and comments.” (personal communication, October 8, 2020). He was encouraged to start using Strava by a user of his sport environment. 

   Thanos has gained much knowledge on how to make use of the data results and how to interpret them in a profitable way for his progress, having full control over his quantified self. For example, he states that “..you understand whether you were in the right range for the training”, referring to one of Strava’s features. This good understanding of the use of Strava and his own needs for exercise makes him use the app as a tool and not as a manual or silent advisor “you have to be consistent with your routes regardless of what the device tells you at that time”.

   Thanos enjoys gaining insights into his progress via self-monitoring and keeping an archive by posting his tracking history on his Strava profile. He believes that it improves his life and performance, giving him a sense of self-control : “the fact that I track everything motivates me to have a consistency on the quality and frequency of my training […] It helps me improve”. 

   Regarding the implications on his routine, he believes that Strava’s features affect his performance in both training and social aspects. The feeling of accomplishment and of reward (e.g. the Strava segments) play, according to him, an important role to keep exercising, as it gives a sense of competition with others and with himself: “mark your own territory, […] it is very competitive […] but I have to say, that once you win the segment you don’t run it again until someone else breaks it.” This sense of competition and curiosity when one “beats” the same segment is enough to work as incentive for him to run this course and “claim” it again.

   As for the interactions with users, Thanos feels good about networking and sharing his performance. There is an emerging desire for the ideal representation of self and the sense of accountability within the network that makes one keep exercising “all this tracking might convince me to go do a run which was initially 20km to go to 25-28-30 depending on how I feel. Just because I intend to keep it on Strava”. Moreover, Thanos enjoys browsing his and other people’s posts and efforts, giving and receiving feedback “to give kudos to them”.

   Regarding the group gatherings and challenges organised through Strava, the interviewee could not think of any adverse effect such a practice can bear on users, “it is completely a choice whether you will go or not”. Although he is part of several groups with common backgrounds between users, Thanos does not pay much attention to the group gatherings and challenges as a social feature of Strava. He focuses more on his personal goals and progress. However, he has introduced Strava to a group of his classmates at the university and created a group (named TIMMI), so that he motivates his friends to start exercising.

   By observing the activity of this group and implementing the method of Digital Ethnography, I could understand that some of the users were indeed inspired and motivated by the social features of Strava’s network. Taking a user as an example, he confirms that the social features (e.g. kudos, feedback, share, etc.) of Strava kept them motivated in the long term “we created the group in 2018 and the fact that he is still running I think plays a role that there was the team and the interactions […] the kudos and the feedback”. The pre-existent sense of belonging to a group has played an important role motivating those people to start, through interaction with posts and pictures of their running courses, engaging in those practices.

   Finally, Thanos shares common concerns relating to self-tracking equivocally. He partly fears privacy issues through targeted marketing, but also believes that Strava might not play a significant role in providing private data for marketing purposes. Instead, he thinks that his “digital footprint” can anyway easily be found by all social media apps, “even by who I follow on Instagram one can easily draw conclusions about what I am into”.


   In this section, the data, under the theoretical framework of the literature review, will be discussed. 

   First of all, the use of Strava as a private self-tracking mode is, according to my results, beneficiary for the user. First, the visualisation of data regarding physical activities enhances self awareness, as also Ruckenstein supports (2013, p. 78). The user seems to have control over his health, enhanced via self-tracking, and feels responsible for his performance and well-being. This is in line with the reasoning that self-tracking is an ethical practice of self-caring towards self-knowledge (Belliger & Krieger, 2016). 

   In contrast to Lupton’s idea that self-tracking apps may shift people’s self-perception towards being manipulatable objects, the interviewee strikes a balance in his use of the app. He makes use of his data as “ethical partners and not moral authorities” (Belliger & Krieger, 2016, p. 38). Personal goals together with proper use of the device may determine the outcome of this interaction between humans and devices, as Sharon (2017) and Lupton (2019) suggest. The excessive self-tracking that makes the user feel responsible for his health may be seen, however, as having a potentially harmful effect on users, as they might wrongly consider themselves as medical specialists leading to the false use of such technologies (Marres, 2017), let alone false independence and distrust on traditional medical treatments and healthcare systems. 

   Gamification in the Strava app seems to lead to motivation and encouragement when it comes to exercise. Rewarding, peer feedback and projection among users enhance competition which also plays a vital role in long time engagement (see segments), (Stockinger et al., 2014, p. 5). Based on the interview, the user can keep an archive of his progress visible to his followers. This seems to keep him engaged and at the same time offer a sense of pride for his accomplishments. Gilmore also appraises the beneficial use of gamification in self-tracking and considers that in this way ordinary tasks can be experienced in new ways with enhanced attention (2016, p. 2528). 

   In contrast to Marres’ position that online platforms predefine the form of interaction through so-called “action formats” (2017, p. 60) in terms of the group, the importance of the pre-existing community is evident in the members’ participation in the group of self-tracking. Group challenges do not seem to be “ethical” risks to the idea of self-improvement into an area of external control, as Lupton, 2016, fears, due to their volunteer nature. Here, individual self-tracking merged with communal (p. 112) relates to technomoral change regarding the transition in classmates’ relationships. With the integration of smart fitness technologies, like Strava, relationships can have various aspects; for example, it might be acceptable for some users to act like others’ “coach” or “teammate”by providing feedback towards a better well-being and so on.

   Marres’ implications of digitalisation, as applied to Strava, indicate that the constant data tracking enables not only data capture but also data analysis or feedback (2017, p. 51). The interviewee seems to have adapted rather consciously to online data sharing, as the projection of his online footprint is rather widely accepted after external use of self-tracking social technologies. This may raise concerns regarding the changing standards of privacy protection. 

   Finally, members’ feeling of accountability derived from the self-projection in Strava can raise new ethical considerations regarding the influencing power of new technologies on self-image and perception of health. Health is not seen as just a necessary condition for survival anymore, but also a lifestyle trend, able to shape one’s identity.


   In this paper, I used the example of Strava to investigate how self-tracking shapes users’ actions and motivation and affects social developments in the light of technomoral change. I have outlined an academic debate including positions around the impact of self-tracking and contrast positive and skeptical points of view. I have also presented and analysed the data of the qualitative interview with Thanos and the small digital ethnography research on one of the groups he is part of. Finally, I discussed the data compared to the most striking academic views put forward in the literature review. 

   I found that self-tracking can shape people’s activity, influence their moral standards and facilitate social modernisation; thus it can be linked to the concept of technomoral change. In brief, the interview data showed positive implications of self-tracking and was mostly in line with the positive effects outlined by scholars. Most importantly, it was indicated that the gamification features implemented in OSFNs play a notable role in engagement with exercise, as well as the enhancement of self-awareness and long-term effort for self-monitoring towards self-improvement. Taking action based on statistical data in combination with the ability of self-representation in a community gives the interviewee a boost to continue self-tracking. Although he focuses on his own goals, he confirms the beneficial effect that social features have on training, agreeing with scholars’ views.

   Scholars holding critical positions recommend a more cautious approach towards self-tracking, to prevent harmful implications like economic-inflicted exploitative actions and a shift of moral values. Scholars like Swiestra warn about the potential risks of human-technology interrelation, for the sake of preventing a gradual transformation of the soft impacts of technomoral change into hard, with significant consequences for society and the self (2015). 

3 Responses

  1. grijspaardt says:

    Dear Elena,

    I really enjoyed reading your paper and I think that you touched upon some really interesting concepts. I myself also wrote about the Strava application, so maybe we can really learn from reading each other’s paper and our comments!
    I think you laid out an interesting academic field in your literature review, explaining relevant concepts; including positive and negative aspects. I found the topic you raised about concerns of self-tracking very interesting. Yet, because of the data you generated from the digital ethnography and qualitative interview, these were not explored as much as the rest. I think because of this, this could be a very interesting aspect to research further in future works!
    Furthermore you discuss the concept of Gamification, which I find quite fascinating. You discuss that this results in responses like competitiveness. I think it would be really interesting, on a platform like Strava, to research the effect (positive and negative implications) this has on its users more in depth.

    All the best,

    • balaska says:

      Dear Julia,

      Thank you very much for the review and feedback.

      Indeed, I mainly focused on the positive aspects based on the data I had.
      It is a really nice idea to take a step further and explore both sides of the implications of Gamification. I would love to have a range of users who might be influenced in different ways by those features of self-tracking. I am sure that a more holistic approach will offer a deeper understanding of those user-practises.

      All the best,


  2. huang says:

    Hi Elena,
    I think the direction of your discussion about Strava is very interesting! The direction of your discussion is mainly about how Strava shapes the behavior and motivation of users and the impact on the digital society. I think these two aspects can help readers understand more comprehensively about Strava, especially for readers like me who is  unfamiliar with this software.
    In addition, the subject of your qualitative interview is a professional cyclist. I think this is an unique perspective. His user image on the platform, I feel more like he is an influencer or leader, including his attempt to establish a small group to influence the behavior of others, this survey angle is very attractive to me. I think for further research, it might be interesting to do research from the perspective of a more ordinary user, the information and situation investigated may be different, and this comparison will also generate new discoveries and research directions.
    Best Regards,


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