Meet the Datasexual

Quantified-selfers are really just self-obsessed

The datasexual looks a lot like you and me, but what’s different is their preoccupation with personal data. They are relentlessly digital, they obsessively record everything about their personal lives, and they think that data is sexy.…Their lives—from a data perspective, at least—are perfectly groomed.

—Dominic Basulto, Big Think (a Web “knowledge forum”)

You might remember (or more likely have been actively trying to forget) the metrosexual, that much-discussed urban male with the legendarily strong aesthetic sense and the equally legendary amount of time and money to spend on his appearance and lifestyle. As maligned as the stereotype came to be, it proved to be a powerful generator of new terms, including its opposite, the retrosexual, the ecosexual (an environmentally conscious person with a strong aesthetic sense), and the technosexual (a male who combines aesthetic flair with a love of technology). The latest incarnation is the datasexual, a person who’s an obsessive self-tracker [see “Tracking the Quantified Self,IEEE Spectrum, August 2013], not just to enhance self-knowledge but also to embellish self-presentation, especially on social networks.

The datasexual spends a good part of the day sending out chunks of digital flotsam that fall under the rubric of the narb, which refers to any item of personal information posted online, particularly as it contributes, often unwittingly, to a personal narrative that the individual is creating online. (The word is a blend of narrative and bit.) The difference between your garden-variety quantified-selfer and a datasexual is the latter’s emphasis on public self-embellishment. While a QSer might use a pedometer to track the number of steps she takes each day, a datasexual will wear a Nike+ FuelBand on his wrist to display the number of steps he takes each day, and he’ll post that number to his online friends. The datasexual transforms self-obsession into conspicuous oversharing.

A typical self-monitoring data junkie will take the good with the bad (and use the bad to improve), but our friend the datasexual is almost always into success theater, the posting of images and stats designed to make others believe he is more successful than he really is. The classic elements of such a strategy include the flattering selfie, which is a photographic self-portrait, particularly one taken with the intent of posting it to a social network (the extreme here is the Facebook face-lift, cosmetic surgery designed to improve how a person looks in photos posted to social networking sites). Bonus points are awarded if the posting includes a humblebrag (an ostensibly humble comment that also demonstrates one’s wealth, fame, or importance) or a vanity metric, a numeric value or data point that serves to highlight some positive aspect of one’s life, such as one’s health (for example “My resting heart rate is 55!”) or one’s standing (“Just passed the 10 000-follower mark on Twitter!”) or if the photo includes someone famous.

Management guru Tom Peters calls such things one’s braggables, and they represent the datasexual’s stock-in-trade. They’re what motivate datasexuals to engage in their daily regimen of data hygiene and data grooming.

Off-line, the datasexual is sure to engage in stage-phoning, which is the attempt to impress nearby people by casually including envy-inducing personal stats while talking on a cellphone in a theatrical manner. With phones omnipresent in the social landscape, and would-be thespians appearing at every airport waiting lounge, coffee shop, and street corner, we see that indeed, 400 years after Shakespeare declared it, all the world really is a stage. After a few minutes of their overly loud and overly proud boasting, we suppress an urge to offer them the traditional actor’s send-off—“break a leg”—because, well, this time we might mean it.

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