The lure of self-disclosure: App-assisted quantification of mood as therapeutic companionship
It’s an early afternoon when my phone prompts me to enter into a conversation in its preferred way of nudging: vibration. ‘How are you feeling?’ it reads on the display. Feeling overwhelmed by a week's workload ahead and glad for the excuse to take a break from writing, I willingly agree to our casual dialogue. Upon swiping the textbox, a ruler shows up, inviting me to choose from ‘really bad’ on the left to ‘very good’ on the right. Each nuance is represented by a specific emoji. I settle on the middle, slightly tilted to the right, and press accept. The app notifies me that I’m ready and I would now have to submit my entry. Upon completion, the app congratulates me by presenting a digital trophy; the message below reads: ‘Well done! We're looking forward to seeing you again. In the meantime, feel free to explore the app and WE plan your happiness’. (Author’s field notes, 5th November 2017)
Mood-tracking applications (‘apps’) have seen a tremendous flourishing in recent years and are recognised as part of an overall ‘applification of mental wellbeing’ (Gaggioli & Riva, 2013). They resemble digital mood journals designed to provide a proactive quantification, control and presentation of mood fluctuations through the simple swiping and tapping on a mobile device touchscreen. Most of these apps are marketed as supplements for Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) of mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. At the same time, nearly all of them are promoted and distributed as efficient tools of empowerment and self-improvement that aim at strengthening the respective users' reflexive engagement with their everyday conduct by way of ‘making emotions count' (Pritz, 2016).
While social scientists and cultural analysts have started to draw attention to this newly emerging technology (Belli, 2016; Davies, 2017; Pritz, 2016), there is a paucity of critical perspectives that address the multifarious engagements with these new information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their role in people’s daily lives (but see Bergroth and Helen in this book). This chapter sheds light on some ways in which people aim to obtain orientation with regard to the relationship one wants to have with oneself and with others (Foucault, 1988) through mood-tracking apps. Such a search for an ethical disposition -the struggling and striving for self-actualisation and transformation - lies at the core of what various authors have identified as therapeutic cultures and self-help
The lure of self-disclosure 125 ideologies (Aubry & Travis, 2015; Furedi, 2004; Illouz, 2008; Nehring et al., 2016; Madsen, 2014; McGee, 2005; Rimke, 2017; Wright, 2008). What lends mood-tracking apps an aura of therapeutic applicability is their promise of positing, through the work on and of the self, a rational managing subject that is capable of observing, measuring and learning to anticipate its own pursuits of happiness and well-being by way of self-disclosure (see Weiner, 2011: 452). However, mood-tracking apps are not simply black-boxed software media, but can be viewed as ‘sociocultural artefacts’ (Lupton, 2014) into which different aspirations, circuits of societal discourses, economic interests and meanings are being inscribed.
Based on six months of ethnographic research centring on one particularly popular mood-tracking app in Germany, the chapter examines various contexts in which this digital technology becomes both a meaningful and alluring, as well as a contested, part of people's lives, thereby addressing an aspect that is frequently overlooked in the existing literature on self-help and therapeutic cultures: that of human and non-human companionships (Pyyhtinen, 2016; Latour, 2005) and the social worlds that emerge from such entanglements. To this end, I employ the Deleuzian-Guattarian notion of assemblage (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013 ; see also DeLanda, 2006). Assemblage thinking is particularly helpful because it allows tracing of modes of arranging heterogeneous elements that become productive for a certain time before they potentially dissolve and disperse again (Müller & Schurr, 2016; Marcus & Saka, 2006). In this sense, assemblage thinking is attentive both to the active labour of pulling elements together and to the intrinsic capacities of (human as well as non-human) components to exceed their place in the assemblage: the hardware of the mobile device and software program at play; the data produced; startup entrepreneurs participating in the app’s production; social networks as well as media outlets and their discursive potentials; individual selves engaging with these technologies as part of the fabric of everyday life. Following Muller’s (2015: 35) conceptual work on the notion of assemblage, I suggest that it is different affective forces and intensities that serve as the assemblage’s ‘’tertium quid', which make the socio-material components of mood-tracking apps stay together or fall apart. As will be demonstrated, certain expectations may be temporarily projected onto mood-tracking apps and prompt people to practically invest hope in them. At the same time, the very investment in and emotional experience of using these apps intensifies the affective flows that become constitutive of an app's assemblage.
From writing to swiping; locating mobile app-assisted quantification of mood
Taking the measure of one’s mood is not a novel practice of self-disclosure: Pen-and-paper based mood-charts have had a long tradition dating back to the 18th century (Martin, 2007:177-96) and have become an integral part in the emergence of CBT and research (Ekkekakis, 2013). Arguably, the change ‘from writing to swiping’ that occurred with the widespread circulation of mood-tracking apps has not entirely changed the basic philosophical and ideological premises involved in measuring one's mood. Sociologist Miriam Pritz (2016) suggests that tracking one's mood is best conceived of as a heuristic practice of self-examination (Selbstthematisierung) that bears upon and feeds back into other forms of institutionalised ‘technologies of the self (Foucault, 1988), such as autobiographical accounts, diaries or confessions. For Pritz, the practice of confession - viewed through its religiously connoted nexus of guilt, self-disclosure and self-control -is a particular case in point since it has ‘led to a specific kind of socialisation of feelings and emotions and an increased awareness of one's own subjectivity’ (Pritz, 2016: 180; see also Wright, 2008); an awareness that is based upon a cathartic teleology of salvation and purification (Pritz, 2016). Hence, disclosing one’s inner self, feelings and emotions in a confessional manner can be understood as an exertion of self-discipline that aims at easing guilt or shame, also by making private concerns public.
At the same time, the self-disciplining of emotional experience (see, for example, Hochschild, 1983) has given way to an intensified acceptance of emotional expressiveness (Neckel, 2014). This convergence can be regarded as a characteristic feature of contemporary emotion cultures (Illouz, 2008) with which mobile app-assisted quantification of mood intersects: A rationalisation of life-conduct in the Weberian sense, which involves a calculating self enmeshed in a heightened awareness of and means of expressing one’s own moods, feelings and emotions. Pritz concludes that
[...] the implicit concepts of emotions underpinning emotional self-tracking techniques are characterized by a materialistic-rationalistic understanding of emotions [...]. Emotions are treated as phenomena that can be ordered, regulated and normalized. They are objectified by processes of observation and classification [...] and are remade into phenomena that can be willfully regulated and purposively shaped. At the same time, emotions are held in high esteem as personal resources of self-knowledge and self-fulfilment. A ‘better' understanding, which always means better ‘management’ of one’s own emotions and those of others, is supposed to bring about happiness and success in nearly every aspect of life.
(Pritz, 2016: 184)
The rationalisation and expressiveness of emotional experiences resonates with what scholars have identified as the therapeutic self-management paradigm of mental illness (Weiner, 2011). This paradigm aligns with an overall rise of psy-disciplines (Rose, 1998) and propagates work on and of the self, positing the powerful idea of subjectivity as a possible object for rational management and systematic governing, while at the same time one’s rationality is called into question (Weiner, 2011). A person needs to not merely speak and think, but is also required to assess his or her condition against the background of desired objectives - whether it be authority, efficiency, happiness or well-being (Rose, 1998, 1990). Self-management practices thereby reinforce ‘therapeutic orthodoxies’
(Ecclestone & Hayes, 2009: 9) that draw from an eclectic alloy of behavioural science (e.g., James Gross’ process model of emotion regulation), Freudian and Jungian analysis, as well as Rogerian counselling, but first and foremost make reflexivity a pivotal constituent of knowledge production.
In mood-tracking, quantified logic lies at the core of reflecting one’s emotional experiences: by charting the daily ups and downs of our moods upon a scale, people translate subjective, bodily, and at times ephemeral experiences into symbolic sets of supposedly stable and manageable data. Once quantified, distinct feelings become comparable to those of others through a supposedly shared understanding of these metrics. This process of deploying numerical representations to create relations between experiences, that is, the transformation of qualitative into quantitative distinctions, can be identified as ‘commensuration’ (Espeland & Stevens, 1998: 316). In order to illustrate the commensuration of mood, anthropologist Emily Martin (2007: 187) recounts a scene from a mood disorder support group, in which people introduced themselves not only by name, but also by giving an oral mood-chart, ranging from -5 to +5 and thereby indicating a spectrum of moods from depressed to manic. In this example, the numbers produce new categories of understanding mental states. At the same time, however, the numbers also enact the complex experiences they set out to measure; in other words, mood quantification makes the ‘unseen’ aspects of emotional life visible and points to a formalisation of the work on the self, which transcends less formalised, situational forms of expression or ‘gut feeling’ and thus becomes authoritative in its own right by lending an objective aura to the messiness of life - not only individually, but also collectively.
On the other hand, the alleged capacity to objectively compare different qualities and actors can unleash an oppressive language of ‘normality’ and ‘norm transgression’. Illouz (2008: 138-9) states that ‘[o]nce numerical metaphors are used [...], “balancing” emotions becomes akin to establishing a “mean” or average on a numerical scale. Numbers are metaphors for the idea that emotions and personality traits can be averaged out’. Dissolving emotions into numbers, moodtracking may thus become vehicular to datafied processes of ‘dividualisation’ within a ‘society of control’ (Deleuze, 1992 ; see also Bergroth and Helen in this book).