What We Talk About When We Talk Data: Metrics, Mobilization, and Materiality in Performing Health Online

Brittany Fiore-Silfvast, Gina Neff


In this paper we develop a critique of the concept of data as culturally embodied and materialized in and around online health and wellness communities. Drawing on two years of qualitative, ethnographic observations, participation, and interviews in the field of consumer health and wellness digital technologies with the designers and users of internet-based health and wellness data “tracking,” our work explores the gap between discourses of data, the practices of, with, around and through data, and the contexts in which data “live.” Together, through these discourses, practices, and contexts, what we term $2 emerge, allowing data to perform in different ways in different communities in different contexts and for different purposes.We extend an emerging scholarly conversation about the nature of data by pointing to the ways that data valences may be contested or negotiated at the boundaries of institutions. This is what we refer to as polyvalent data: when data has multiple, and sometimes contentious valences. Within institutions data valences come with more institutional authority and seemingly cohere and congeal within those institutional settings. What we see in our research is that at the intersections between institutions or, what we call interstices, the polyvalent nature of data is more apparent. We identify six data valences: 1) self-evidence, 2) actionability, 3) communication/connection, 4) transparency/openness, 5) truthiness, and 6) discovery and map their emergent symbolic and material performances across the discourses, practices, and contexts of health and wellness communities of practice.

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