Transformation in digital cultures

The Quantified Self: Analyzing the Sleep Quality Monitoring Application Snail Sleep


With the unceasing development on the digital technology, a variety of tasks can be conducted that are unprecedented in before. Such evolution allows people not only to be more capable in their daily life and work, but more importantly render them to have a better knowledge of their own self. To that term, health-tracking applications and devices are seen as an emerging trend in the digital consumption market. Admittedly, although there are different voices on the health self-tracking applications in terms of their efficacy and potential ethical issues, health self-tracking does bring change to people’s life in an unprecedented means.

To understand those self-tracking apps and devices, it should be noted that the essence of them is data, that is, they tell the users about their self-status in the scientific language of data. However, what needs to be further investigated is that, what senses are the data making and whether they are making a positive impact. By zooming in on a sleep quality monitoring application named Snail Sleep, the researcher conducts a virtual ethnography and relevant interview on it revolving round one research question, that is, is sleep quality self-tracking application changing people’s sleep quality for the better? Underneath which, a series of sub questions are explored in the ethnography within this topic.


The method that is adopted in the study is ethnography and qualitative interview. As a research method that belongs to the realm of anthropology, ethnography is based on the result of field research in order to give certain description about culture so as to comprehend and explain a social phenomenon within theoretical views (Lillis, 2008). Qualitative interview targets to draw insightful and dimension answers from the interviewees by asking them qualitative questions, while the disadvantage of it may lay in that it is difficult to generalize the result within a set of rigid standards (Anyan, 2013).

In total of 5 participators were involved in the 10-minute session ethnography and all of them were required to experience on their on the app of Snail Sleep to track their sleep status for 3 days, before they took part of the virtual ethnography, which would be conducted via Wechat group call. The virtual ethnography would focus on their experience and reflection of the app that include thinking and examination on its ethical issues.After the virtual ethnography was conducted,  I chose the one respondent who was most expressive with ideas to do a few more one-on-one 30 minutes’ interview  to delve more aspects in order to answer the research question.  The questions would be curated and mainly follow the key agenda as follows:

  1. Do you think that the app is (not) useful? In what ways?
  2. Do you regard the data to be (not) important? In what ways?
  3. Do you think you gain a better self-knowledge after using it?

To avoid potential ethical issue, an email was sent to the participants prior to the research explaining the purpose of it, stating that the alias would be used to protect their private information and the research data would be destroyed once the paper is submitted.

Literature Review

Understanding Digital Device and Its Value

Digital device and apps are not strange to the audience of today who are digital natives. To sum up the definition of which, as elaborated by Borgmann (1999), digital device is often applied as a means to reach a certain end. According to Borgmann (1999), the purpose of digital device is to relieve the human burden where a digital paradigm focuses on the realization of good life that is in accordance with one’s values. On the other hand, Borgmann (1999) tended to suggest that digital technology does not increase value and thus cannot be used to contribute to the quality of a good life while as digital devices are getting to be more and more universally seen, it become quite important for people to re-examine what is good and fit their value in a digitalized society.

As digital technology has gradually become the overriding context that people find themselves are in on a daily basis, it provides people with unprecedented convenience whereas on the same time it creates certain difficulty to access to the values that are held by people since the digital power becomes already dominant (Borgmann, 1999).  Therefore, what is argued here is the digital device’s value and the self-realization of human or ordinary users, since the former, which should be secondary sometimes overwhelms the subjectivity of the latter.

The Practice of Digital Culture, Focal Things and Focal Practices

In that sense, the concern brought up by Borgmann (1999, p. 10), simply put, is that the practice of digital culture may very likely contribute to the excessive reliance on the devices as people tend to forget that they are merely tools to provide certain services and consumptions, rendering it to be an ingrained part of human value in return. It is where that Borgmann (1999) tells apart the differences in the two concepts of focal things and focal practices. Focal things are usually more concrete, deep and tangible that possess their own structure and tradition; and thus, focal things can sufficiently provide a center for practice and that it literally becomes the origin of one’s values. It is because of focal things that focal practices are derived from, and it is focal practice that the added value of one’s life can be generated.

There is already much knowledge about the focal things in all kinds of technical report and analytical articles whereas the focal practices where the perspective of human users are involved in, are oftentimes less explored. For instance, Chughtai (2020) pointed out a fact that is often overlooked that in literature review relevant to digital culture, that there are abundant of them deciphering and conceptualizing digital technology per se whereas there is little to showcase the perspectives that people hold towards digital and information technology.

While Heideggerian may start from the description of a sort of human existence from a technological worldview since the latter can be used to describe the situation of the former, Borgmann (1999) tried to pinpoint that human factors play a vital part in the device paradigm concept, rendering to the fact where the means is distancing from the ends, which is to say that the reasonability of ends does not justifies that of means and vice versa. In that context, the means is the digital device and the end is the healthy status of oneself. In that process, human endeavor may be overshowed by that of digital capability. At the meantime, Turkle (2011) also indicated that when a digital device or application is able to conveniently provide a certain service, for instance, instant message, people will thus normally ignore the value by which they live.

As stated by Lupton (2019), relevant study results indicate that no matter how long that the users have been self-tracking their health status, the practice of them has already turned into a sort of habituated selfhood. In other words, focal things overwhelm focal practices since the device or apps plays the integral part of the focal things instead of the human initiatives. Moreover, the monitoring practice and strategy can be highly complex since the tracking involves a range of mathematical calculations that need to be deciphered in usually 20 mins to 1 hour (Lupton, 2019). Such process to certain extent proves the complicated assemblage of human and technology since people feel that they need to get more knowledge of their body on one hand and that people ultimately are subject to the technology in order to gain self-knowledge on the other hand.

Findings about the Health-Tracking Apps

As stated by Lupton (2019), the overall medical and health application market is getting more and more popular as can be indicated by the download volume that has climbed drastically within the past few years. According to Lupton (2019), the health-tracking digital devices and applications are considered to be emerging technologies that can help people to reach the aim of self-care and enhancing the fitness status either physically or psychologically. However, despite the fact that the health-tracking apps market is seeing tremendous prosperity, it still remains to be largely unknown that whether the apps prove to be useful to some people or fail for some others, as well as what are the functions that encourage people to continue using the apps and devices (Piwek et al., 2016). General findings are, as revealed by Accenture Consulting (2016)’s relevant data, fitness, diet and nutrition apps are those most popular ones, followed by symptom and heath-tracking ones.

Sharon & Zandbergen (2017) provide an account to understand health-tracking device as a sort of data fetishism, since people are highly reliant on the data to tell whether their health is in a satisfactory status or there are some areas need to pay more attention to. It is eventually based on those data that individual data users make plan in order to improve or maintain their health. Therefore, Sharon & Zandbergen (2017) argue that more work needs to be made in order to comprehend that from what aspects self-tracking can be more meaningful and valuable. On the other hand, Sharon & Zandbergen (2017) also admit the importance of data since it is data that helps ensure something is reliable instead of solely as a sort of intuition or feeling. The scientific aspect of numbers and data assist people to learn about the truth while the over-emphasizing on data, as worried by Sharon & Zandbergen (2017), may result to the disappearance of the complex world comprised of the entire human being, society and the corresponding environment.

Data Presentation and Analysis

As can be seen from the literature review, health-tracking apps have become an emerging trend of the market while the exact value of it may be argued, rendering the research to be quite necessary to be taken. The following shows the data provided by the participant towards the main questions orchestrated in the interview. Before elaborating about the result of the research, the backgrounds of the interviewee should be indicated. I focused on an one-on-one interview with Jane (pseudonym), a 28-year-old female. Passionate about using health tracking apps, she had used Snail Sleep before accepting this interview.

The Usefulness of the App

When asked whether Snail Sleep is useful for your life, Jane ’s  answer to this question is “interesting” or “informative” rather than “useful”. The interviewee seemed fascinated by how to use this method to quantify her sleep quality in different dimensions, but she did not provide enough concrete evidence to show whether the application is useful for her.

“I felt it to be interesting to see all these numbers to describe my sleep duration, turn overs and sleep latency. In particular, the app also recorded a short part of my dream talk, which was so funny. It did give several data sets to compare with peers’ average situation so that I could have a big picture. It is useful in a way that it lets me know what I have not known before, but as I have been only using for a few months, it is hard to say whether it is useful.”

(personal communication, October 16, 2020)

The home page of Snail Sleep

The Importance of the Data

The interviewee agreed that the app provided a series of data and the data was indicative of some facts about her sleep, and she thought that the factualness was beyond the potential importance, which could be suggested from the following  conversation with Jane : 

“From the data I can tell that the deep sleep duration of mine was much below the average number of my peers provided by the app, that explained the reason why that I constantly felt sleepy or less vigorous during the daytime.”

(personal communication, October 16, 2020)

“But that does not really tell whether it is important, isn’t it? I mean…even if you know about all that fact, does it change your daily schedule, or does it remind you to make a change at all?”

(personal communication, October 16, 2020)

“Yes, I agree with you, I have not thought about it that far yet, but I do not think I will make a change simply because I have learnt about the data”

(personal communication, October 16, 2020)

The recording of sleeping


This paragraph concerns with whether the swipe feel that after using the app they would gain a better knowledge about themselves.  In general, it should be said that the self-knowledge was gained for sure to different degrees while Jane tended to think about the functionality of that self-knowledge.

“Sure enough, it is a brand-new experience for me personally when I first used those health-tracking app . In the first day I was amazed that the situation of my body could be quantified in such way. And then in the second and third day when I used this app during my sleep, when I saw those data after I woke up, I started to think, yes, so much information about myself, and then, what should do?”

(personal communication, October 16, 2020)

“ I kept thinking that oh cool I slept for 6 hours with 5 hours of deep sleep, but I should sleep longer right? How should I do it? And I look at those numbers and think that I would probably still play video games, right?”

(personal communication, October 16, 2020)

“Yes you are totally right, I felt like I have no idea about what to do, and probably I am somewhat nervous as I can sense that my sleep pattern and daily schedule may not be the most ideal, but after way I don’t think it will be changing.”

(personal communication, October 16, 2020)

As suggested from the above conversation, it is clear that Jane seemed to be at a loss to certain degree that she knew about her sleep data but what would be the next was the puzzle as she was not sure whether it could lead things to get better and she might feel anxious in the process, rendering herself to be the subordinates of the numbers and data.

Interviewee’s data


Based on the view of Borgmann (1999), digital device serves as a tool to reach an end. While from the answers provided by the participant, it could be hard to say whether the digital app was a tool since it was more ‘interesting’ than ‘useful’, which was a direct experience of the data. When the data was defined as ‘interesting’ rather than ‘useful’, it essentially lost its meaning as being as a sort of tool in the first place.

Furthermore, within the theoretical framework of Borgmann (1999), data as the information of digital device possesses such an important place even to some point it would be regarded as a hindrance to human self-realization since it is the data that dominates the talk. However, as revealed from the research result, the data did showcase certain fact whereas it did not say anything further about the human being, which tended to disagree with Borgmann’s saying. It might be because that the sample size who took part of the research was too small. Nonetheless, it demonstrated that the profound functionality of data is questionable.

On the other hand, the respondent seemed capable to tell the difference between focal things and focal practices as she tended to treat the experience with the app merely a practice instead of admitting the overarching importance that the digital app was bringing her, and thus she’s idea did not show traces of what Sharon & Zandbergen (2017) would call as data fetishism. Compared with the message that the app data brought to her, the respondent seemed to be clearer that the data was not fundamentally changing her into another person and she still felt somewhat confused about what steps to be taken to change her life to be better.

The research findings from the above may look periphery at the first glance while they serve as the integral part to be used in order to comprehensively answer the research question. The paper contends that sleep quality self-tracking app is not changing people’s sleep quality for the better. Firstly, the respondent did not necessarily state that the app is useful. Even if she somewhat agreed that the data could be important in a way (as the data could be used to explain some of her day-time behavior), she did not think she could do anything with the data since the data was quite factual-oriented. Indeed, certain knowledge about oneself was gained through using the app, while the truth was that the data still could trigger negative feelings such as anxiety without really making an impact on guiding people to do better.


Health-tracking app is becoming more and more popular in recent years in the digital device and app market. At the meantime, it should be also admitted that the usage of which also comes along with potential ethical issues as indicated by Borgmann, is that the subjectivity of human value could be highly overwhelmed by that of the digital technology’s values. It is because, in some cases of digitalization, people are too much preoccupied in the data, which has already turned into a sort of data fetishism.

By involving an qualitative interview session, the research asked the question that whether sleep quality self-tracking application is changing people’s sleep quality. As the result indicates, although the data analysis by the app can provide certain information, the users generally doubt whether the data can be useful to improve their life quality.

Although it is not possible to summarize the research results based on an interview, the rich data can provide insight into health-tracking related apps from the user’s perspective. Further research can be applied to self-tracking applications and how these apps affect people’s lives.


Accenture Consulting. (2016). Accenture 2016 Consumer Survey on Patient Engagement.

Anyan, F. (2013). The Influence of Power Shifts in Data Collection and Analysis Stages: A Focus on Qualitative Research Interview. Qualitative Report18, 36.

Borgmann, A. (1999). Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium. University of Chicago Press.

Chughtai, H. (2020). Human Values and Digital Work: An Ethnographic Study of Device Paradigm. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography49(1), 27-57.

Lillis, T. (2008). Ethnography as method, methodology, and “Deep Theorizing” closing the gap between text and context in academic writing research. Written communication25(3), 353-388.

Lupton, D. (2019). ‘It’s made me a lot more aware’: a new materialist analysis of health self-tracking. Media International Australia, 171(1), 66-79.

Mullis, E. (2013). Dance, interactive Technology, and the device Paradigm. Dance Research Journal45(3), 111-123.

Piwek, L., Ellis, D. A., Andrews, S., & Joinson, A. (2016). The rise of consumer health wearables: promises and barriers. PLoS medicine13(2), e1001953.

Sharon, T., & Zandbergen, D. (2017). From data fetishism to quantifying selves: Self-tracking practices and the other values of data. New Media & Society19(11), 1695-1709.

Turkle, S. (2011). Authenticity in the age of digital companions. Machine ethics, 62-76.

(4) Comments

  1. Desislava Pavlova says:

    Reading your paper I kind of learned about Snail Sleep. To be honest I never used self-tracking sleep apps and I am not sure yet if this app can change my quality of life for better. I believe that sleep-tracking tech could provide inaccurate data and even making people obsessed with achieving perfect slumber. For this reason, I will research more about of the idea that health apps are necessarily making people healthier? I found for interesting Jane’s answer that the app is “interesting” than useful and I agree with your research that the user comes along with potential ethical issues that need to be researched in depth.

  2. Desislava Pavlova says:

    Also, I think we can research the question “ Do we use self-tracking apps as a trend or need? Many of my friends when we meet for a coffee first take out their phones and talk about the calculation of their steps and calorie count. For this reason, I feel we use all these new generation apps to be trendy not really to know our health data.

  3. pavlova says:

    Reading your paper I kind of learned about Snail Sleep. To be honest I never used self-tracking sleep apps and I am not sure yet if this app can change my quality of life for the better. I believe that sleep-tracking tech could provide inaccurate data and even making people obsessed with achieving perfect slumber. For this reason, I will research more about of the idea that health apps are necessarily making people healthier? I found for interesting Jnae’s answer that the app is “interesting” then useful and I agree with your research that the user comes along with potential ethical issues that need to be researched in depth. Satiation with a friend of mine made me wonders how we look on self-tracking apps. When we meet for a coffee she first takes out her phone, as she explains, to check that her fitness app has calculated her steps from her car to our café. My question is do we look at the self-tracking app as a trend or as a need?

  4. Nika Music says:

    Dear Mingshu,

    I also did my paper on self-tracking! Since you’ve researched this; I don’t know if you know about the smart water bottle Equa? It’s a bottle that tracks your water intake and glows when you need to take a sip. I’m generally fascinated by self-tracking basic human behavior like drinking, eating, and sleeping. Perhaps you could further your research by doing another basic human need, that would be very interesting!
    Other than that, I think it would also be great if you were to find a self-tracking device that actually is useful to people that use it, or one that actually makes people think they’re developing into a “higher” version of themselves.
    Another idea is diving deep into the ethical implications of self-tracking. I think there’s a lot that is undiscovered or not done enough of in this particular case. There is significant research done on the physical or fitness part of self-tracking, but not much on the mental health/self-awareness implications.

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