Assembling mood-tracking apps for depression: the affective economies of DepressApp

In the following sections I will focus on a single, yet intricate question: How do mood-tracking apps invoke the lure of self-disclosure? In order to approach this question, I will analyse the affective intensities constitutive of one particularly popular mood-tracking app in Germany, here called DepressApp)

DepressApp is a free-to-use app introduced to Apple's iOS in 2015 (with Android following in 2016) and is envisioned and marketed as ‘the ultimate mobile tool to assist’ the therapy of mental illness, with a focus on people suffering from depression. With the aid of a coloured emoji-scale, users can rate their moods, jot diary-like journal entries and document their bodily sensations. As for the upcoming iterations, the app will automatically send the journal data to an authorised therapist, reach out to predefined phone contacts whenever the user data points to an episode of depression and will passively learn from the data patterns in order to propose ‘wellbeing activities’, such as taking a walk or a nap, listening to music or cooking a meal. In addition, psychotherapists will be equipped with a dashboard to receive, administer and assess a client’s data, communicate through DepressApp and monitor the client - upon her/his approval - even after completing treatment, in order to prevent relapses. By 2017, the app has become successful enough to support a small company with three employees, having received funding from a prestigious German investment and consulting company that financially supports the app's route to a CE-marking, which is required in order to promote a medical device in the European Union.2 Alongside the increase of financial backup, the app’s media attention has grown rapidly since its launch, corresponding to a general increase in public awareness of ICT and mental health care in Germany.

The app is assembled - that is, imagined and promoted, as well as frequently understood and used - as a therapeutic companion3 that accumulates meaning and momentum by way of circulation in an ‘affective economy’ (Ahmed, 2004a: 44-9):

the more they [objects] circulate, the more affective they become, and the more they appear to ‘contain’ affect. Another way to theorize this process would be to describe ‘feelings’ via an analogy with ‘commodity fetishism': feelings appear in objects, or indeed as objects with a life of their own, only by the concealment of how they are shaped by histories, including histories of production [...], as well as circulation or exchange.

(Ahmed 2004b: 120-1, emphasis in the original)

The therapeutic companion can thus be seen as an object in which certain feelings and emotions are invested. This object is both shaped by and actively shaping its own enactment: on the one hand, people are drawn to it for specific reasons, with specific motivations and expectations. At the same time, the app actively produces and sustains these expectations. DepressApp is thus always caught up in the processes of becoming: it is a mobile technology that can be deployed, fiddled with for a while or deleted when its time has come; but it may also become productive by shaping different modes of perception, responsiveness and desires.

Analysing affect is a slippery slope. For some authors, the power of ‘affect’ as an analytical tool lies exactly in its ‘presocial’ and ‘preconscious’ qualities (see, e.g., Massumi, 2002) that are said to account for the non-representational ‘zones of the intimately impersonal and the impersonally intimate’ (Mazzaralla, 2017). Research projects that involve such an understanding of affect frequently seek to investigate the forces that work on and through bodies rather than analysing their discursive articulations. However, when engaging with digital environments, one has to rely chiefly on ‘textuality' - written and spoken representations of feelings, experiences and expectations - in order to make sense of the ways in which circulation unfolds in an affective economy. The analytical approach employed here draws inspiration from studies that interrogate the entanglements of narrative, discourse and affect (Oikkonen, 2017; Wetherell, 2013; Wetherell et al., 2015) and that also aim to bring concepts of emotion and affectivity into a fruitful dialogue (see also Stanley and Kortelainen and Kolehmainen in this book). In her research on the role of affective dynamics in newspaper articulations of the technoscientific constructions of the ‘Zika epidemic’, Venla Oikkonen suggests:

While affective intensities may give rise to emotions (in the sense that they precede emotion), [...] emotions shape how we may become (or fail to become) attuned to affective intensities. In this sense, affective intensities and [...] emotions co-constitute the preconditions of experience.

(Oikkonen, 2017: 683)

By focusing on the discursive construction of the therapeutic companion and the users’ articulations of their expectations and experiential engagements, I wish to examine how the app ‘invites us to be affected' (ibid.), thereby revealing its affective value. Like Oikkonen, I aim to do so by analysing ‘narratives’ (Riessman, 2008) surrounding DepressApp's construction and circulation. According to Oikkonen, this method highlights ways in which ‘narrative organization produces a sense of movement, anticipation or closure’:

Crucially, narrative is more than a mode of representation; narratives condition how we orientate in time and space. Narrative organization produces a sense of movement and temporal orientation that exceeds (and sometimes even contradicts) the explicit words on the page.

(Oikkonen, 2017: 686)

Apart from the emotional impact that texts produce through their language and content, textual representations of emotions influence readers through their structural, largely non-discursive orientations and connect phenomena or events ‘through the fabric of circulating images, tropes, and metaphors’ that are often affectively charged (ibid.).

In the following analysis, I will therefore pay close attention to recurring images and metaphors in people’s articulations of DepressApp's imaginaries: I will first describe how DepressApp becomes conveyed and engaged with as a therapeutic companion. Second, I will show how the app is perceived as a symbolic vehicle to regaining voice against stigmatising perceptions of mental illness. The empirical data was mainly produced through several semi-structured interviews - both online and ofiline - with the producers of DepressApp and a total of twelve app users4 as well as three CBT therapists. In addition, I have examined entries in social media channels that either refer to DepressApp or to mobile mental health in Germany and attended startup events, conferences on digital health and developers' co-working spaces.

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