Photo Lifelogging: Why I’m Skeptical


Would you wear a miniature camera on a necklace or clip that goes off automatically at certain intervals, producing a stream of oddly-angled pictures of whatever (or whoever) is in front of you? Would you wear it all day, every day, to create a visual record of how you’re spending your time?

There are at least two new cameras hitting the market later this year that are customized for this purpose: one from a Swedish company called Memoto (pictured below), and another in the UK called Autographer (above). And of course, the new Google Glass could be used the same way, with the added advantage of taking photos from eye level.

I saw several presentations on this subject at the recent Quantified Self conference in Amsterdam, and met some of the early adopters who have already been doing it with existing technology like the Microsoft Sensecam. Some are very persuasive, but I’m still a bit skeptical about the benefits of this practice and its potential to really spread.

Why? Because when they explain what they’re doing, “lifeloggers” tend to speak in terms of individual insight, reflection and recall — the kind of benefits you’d get from looking at your own photo stream. But few of them are keeping their photos for their own private viewing — they’re posting them on the internet, sharing them with friends, and talking about them in conference presentations.

Of course, the early adopters who evangelize a technology are naturally going to be more performative about it than the average user. But in this case, I suspect that this performative aspect is where most of the real appeal comes from.

And these new devices include features that facilitate that, by allowing users to censor — sorry, “curate” — their own photo streams. There’s a snooze button for when you’re using the bathroom, for example. They also have a GPS receiver that adds location-based functions, so that all the users at a particular event can pool their photos.

Many of the performative proto-lifelogging experiments I’ve seen are quite interesting (check out Buster Benson’s 8:36 project), but I suspect that the experience of early adopters is not at all representative of what it’ll be like for their followers.


First off, when more than a handful of people have these things, each person’s public photo stream (or whatever curated and/or annotated subset they choose to make public) is going to get a lot less attention. It doesn’t really matter whether the appeal to the “lifelogger” comes from pure attention-seeking or genuine social connection, because both of those rewards will drop off a cliff.

This is a problem for a number of self-tracking apps and gadgets that have social elements. For example, Runkeeper posts on Facebook when you’ve completed a run, with the idea that your friends will offer a word of encouragement, or at least notice and silently approve. And maybe it worked that way at the beginning. Today, I know I have a few Facebook friends who use Runkeeper, because I occasionally see “___ has completed a __km run in __ minutes” …but not only do I not register the distance or time, I don’t even know which friends they are.

It’s the same with anyone who “reviewed ___ on Amazon” or “hung out with ___” or “checked in at ___.” It doesn’t even register. And before you judge me for this, test yourself on it! You may find that just like me, you’re being unwittingly trained to ignore auto-posted content from apps.

There’s definitely a lag between the point where everyone stops noticing our shares and the point where we realize that and stop sharing, and in a sense this period is a win-win: you’re still getting the motivation that comes from public exposure, but no one else is expending any actual time or attention. But eventually it has to catch up.

Second, other people are more likely to put up with these cameras when they’re an interesting new gadget to learn about. Once the average person is familiar with the concept, their charmed curiosity about this clever toy will turn to annoyance at being photographed without prior consent for such a vague and dilettantish reason.

(Note the contrast to being captured by a surveillance camera, TV news camera or street photographer: you may not like it, but at least there’s a clear and relatable purpose.)

Part of this conference was a panel on the privacy implications of these devices and the changing social norms they represent, but I suspect these questions will turn out to be moot. I think what’ll happen, and it’s already happening with Google Glass, is that over time there’ll be fewer and fewer places where you’re comfortable wearing your auto-camera, because more people will find it aggressive, rude or (worse) just trite.

Lifeloggers worry about being asked to turn the camera off in bars or other social situations, but that’s the best-case scenario. What they should really be worried about is not being invited along to the bar in the first place because of their creepy camera. And however much they spent on the camera, however excited they were about it — I promise you that as soon as they feel like it’s having a negative impact on their social life, the average user will put it away.

And those situations where you can’t use your camera will be exactly the ones that you’d most want to capture, the ones that make you look (to yourself or others) like a fun and interesting person. Without them, your “stream” will be reduced to a depressing alternating sequence of your computer monitor at work and the steering wheel or train window from your commute. It won’t take much of that before the cameras go back on the shelf.

And that’s too bad, actually, because the idea of a private, non-performative, non-social photo stream is pretty interesting, and I think it could offer some real insight, just as a written journal does.

Maybe someone should make a special version of these cameras that deliberately makes it difficult to curate or share your content, one that you can’t easily turn off while you’re in the bathroom, that you can really only use for personal review. And then maybe the rest of us could learn to recognize this particular type of camera and be more tolerant of it. But without the appeal to vanity, how many of them would they really sell?

6 thoughts on “Photo Lifelogging: Why I’m Skeptical”

  1. Maybe if they were analog instead of digital it would restrain the automatic spreading online. It’s a concept that can be use very smartly or very poorly like most app out there. I like the concept of creating a visual diary, but that would include the private aspect of it. Privacy is becoming so hard to preserve nowadays with the overflowing of informations about what everybody is doing, where and with whom. Instagram is already saturating us with photo flows I’m not sure we need another one.

    1. Yeah I like the analog idea, obviously the film would be way too expensive though. Maybe a Snapchat-type thing where the photos disappear after a day or two? or maybe they could slowly “fade” over time?

  2. I have been lifelogging with an audio recorder for the past 3 years. I feel that it offers an advantage over the photo style:

    – A wearable video currently is fairly low quality and fails in poor light conditions. This distracts from your “reliving it” experience.
    – The audio recorder can be more discrete when worn.
    – People feel recording video continuously is more intrusive during some activities.
    – Audio is fantastic for triggering your brain to recall memory. Watching a grainy video causes the brain to focus on the quality of picture and distracts from the memory

    The other factor that is neglected is how important the software to review your lifelog is. As you mentioned, it should be done like a journal. The reflective process is huge. I have found I can recall the important things happen to me in a day, where normally they would have been forgotten.

    I am in the process of making it into a complete private solution. A raspberry pi that you plug into at the end of the day. I think that offering a private wearable computing platform is vitally important so the big players wont end up eating your data.

    1. Ryan, that’s really interesting. One of the presenters at that conference (@cathal I think) described how people reacted more harshly to the idea of audio than video. They would only calm down about the camera when assured there was no microphone.

      Of course, if no one sees the microphone and you never put the audio online or play it for anyone else, then no harm done, I guess. But I wonder what the legal implications are — not just whether you can surreptitiously record people, which probably varies widely by jurisdiction (and “surreptitious” is subjective), but also whether you could ever be subpoenaed for the recordings…

      I can totally see why it would be more useful in the reflective process, though. How do you decide which parts to listen to? It must be a lot harder to skim through hours of audio than to flip through a few hundred photos.

      1. There are so many fascinating sides to this discussion. One is introspecting why people react harsly to getting recorded. A probably similar feeling happened when language was invented. All of the sudden a persons actions could be described to others over time and space. Morality probably soon followed. In a same way with ubiquitous recording, people feel there actions/words will be found out. I think we are seeing a trend with younger generations who just understand what this means and adapt. But still a huge component with this is trust. If you tell something to me in secret, you trust me. Just because something is being recorded in wetware or hardware does not defer that trust. If I go around leaking recordings, then that trust is lost, and others would know as well. We become even more of a trust economy.

        On my recorder I have one button that I can press that adds a mark to my timeline. That way I can casually mark an event to come back to. I also have begun sucking in a lot of my other feeds so I can overly them on my timeline. That helps to navigate to memorable events. I also have it a lot like google maps. You can zoom in and out, and quickly listen to sections. It is surprisingly easy to find the memorable parts.

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