The Seven Habits of Highly Obsessive People
As the future saying goes, to know thyself is to track thyself. In the digital age, we’re creating records of our behavior all the time. But some of us keep data more intentionally than others. Self-quantifiers take it to the next level, charting the calories in every meal, wearing brain-wave-monitoring headbands to sleep, and searching for meaning in the data they accumulate. The Quantified Self, a community for the personal-data obsessed, held its first conference in San Francisco this year.
One of the original self-trackers, Nicholas Felton has been meticulously recording the details of his life since 2005—every meal eaten, hayride taken, page turned —and compiling it all in his Feltron Annual Reports. Along with fellow designer Ryan Case, Felton created Daytum, a website and iPhone app that helps people track their own activities and organize the resulting data in bar charts and pie graphs. The site enables just about anyone to be a casual “Feltron,” if there is such a thing.
In April, Facebook hired Felton and Case as product designers. With or without their help, social networking and personal statistics seem likely to converge in the future.
So we took a closer look at Felton’s Annual Reports. Part detective story, part graphic-design porn, the reports are as interesting for what they leave out as for what they highlight. After reading page after page of statistics about Felton’s daily life, it’s hard not to feel like you know him. We asked a couple of people who actually do (his mom and his girlfriend)—and Felton himself—whether the charts are getting it right.
Charts courtesy of Nicholas Felton
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Nicholas Felton has spent years compiling and graphing data about himself. We got the stories behind the charts.
Photograph by TrujilloPaumier
Felton’s girlfriend, Olga Bell: “The Annual Reports reflect what Nicholas does, what he sees, what he consumes, what he chooses to count. Only in pieces do the reports reveal how he actually feels about any of this, which to me is much more compelling.”
Felton: “Sometimes the subjective data in the charts is misleading. The best wedding of 2007 was also the only wedding of 2007. It was a safe bet.”
Felton's mom, Carol Felton: "Until the 2009 report, one could glean only a sketchy superficial impression of what Nicholas is like, the 'real' Nicholas didn't shine through. For the 2009 report he changed tactics, handing out cards to anyone he had more than minimal contact with and asking them to visit his website to answer specific questions about him and the interaction they had had. This gave that report a much more human face."
Mom: "If one didn't know Nicholas from reading the reports one would think that he was super-energized, always on the go, constantly entering data. Of course, the data is recorded but in spite of this, I find him surprisingly relaxed."
Felton: "One of the tensions in the annual report is that they document things that are fun but they're so anal that you would think the person who makes them is not fun."
Felton: “If I felt that I’d had a significant interchange with someone, enough so they got a sense of me, I’d give them a card. There were a couple awkward ones. Like there was one drunk guy at a bar, really drunk, almost incoherent, and he just latched onto me, wouldn’t stop talking. And at a certain point I realized it had become significant and I was going to have to give him a card. I was like, ‘I just have to give you this.’ Then I scampered off. He didn't end up filling out the form. My dentist filled it out, though. I was happy about that.”
Mom: "Until the first report appeared, I hadn’t realized how methodical, and maybe a little obsessive, he had become.”
Girlfriend: "I'm not at liberty to disclose much about what doesn't come across about Nicholas, but I can tell you that Nicholas hates hard-boiled eggs, and I'm sure no forthcoming report will ever feature a 'most loathed food-thing' category, so there you go."
Girlfriend: “I saw the reports at the same time as I met Nicholas. The discipline of keeping these records is extremely impressive, but I was even more blown away by Nicholas’s design sensibility. Every time I look at a piece of his work it makes me feel really calm and grounded, like the various elements involved are gently guiding me through what I need to know. Additionally, the reports I saw had these humorous bits that really drew me in, probably because they revealed something about the person behind the data.”
Felton: "My cat reoccurs throughout the charts. He’s been with me through thick and thin. He did just lose his other tooth so he’ll definitely be back in the next one.”
Mom: “I’m not sure the reports help me to understand him more, but they are a window into his New York life that otherwise would remain slightly mysterious!”
Felton: “People ask me about the burglar a lot. I was lying in bed and reading. The way the light came into my room I could see there was a silhouette on the roof next to my window. So I kind of sat up in bed and stared at him and
he stared at me and he decided to flee rather than fight.”
Felton: “I like the idea that I’ve taken my life and sort of unthreaded it and someone with the time and inclination could study it and see which events tie together.”