When a tree falls

If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? If I go for a run and don’t track it with RunKeeper, did it actually happen? If I go to a restaurant and don’t check-in on Foursquare, did I actually enjoy the meal?  It seems like there is some sort of social media app for everything these days; When I’m out with friends I’m always thinking, to a degree, about what I can say about it on Twitter or Facebook. After every run, one of the first things I do is log on to my RunKeeper account to see how this latest workout has affected my overall stats… especially in relation to my running nemesis Jay.

I’m sure a lot of people view this as extremely unhealthy behavior — that we find it necessary to maintain a digital log of all our activities — and I’m finding myself more and more of two minds on the subject. I can understand the argument that this is a negative behavior. I know it causes January no small degree of frustration that the first thing I do on entering a restaurant is bury my nose in my iPhone to check in on Foursquare, and I have to agree with her. While I do try to find an appropriate time to do it — maybe while she’s looking over the menu, or we’re waiting in line to order — invariably I get at least a dirty look in the process. And I get it. It’s just a silly game, and there’s no real-world benefit to checking in unless the resaurant you’re at happens to offer discounts for doing so.

On the other hand, though, the social aspect these services do motivate me to do things I would be otherwise too ambivilent — or just plain lazy — to do otherwise. Since I began using Foursquare, I’ve been much more agreeable about trying out new restaurants than I used to, partially because I can see whether my friends have been there, and partially because you get more “points” for checking in to places you have never been before. While this might sound like a silly reason to go to a new restaurant, you can’t really argue with the end result: I’m getting out of the house, I’m checking out new places, and I’m supporting local businesses more than I used to.

While you might not agree with my logic as far as Foursquare goes, it’s hard to disagree with how the logic translates to my experience with running. Prior to August of last year, I hadn’t run more than 30 seconds at a time since high school. When my friend Jay introduced me to the RunKeeper iPhone app and accompanying web site, I started to get excited about running. I worked my way through the Couch to 5k program and eventually ran my first ever 5k, 8k, and then 10k. To be honest, 80% of the time when I went running for that first two months, my only motivation was the fact that I knew that I had to keep my RunKeeper profile up to date. If RunKeeper didn’t exist, I can guarantee you that I wouldn’t be running today with plans to run my first half marathon in the fall.

Similarly, we recent purchased a fancy new internet connected digital scale from Withings. Like most higher end scales, this one can recognize who you are and measure your weight, body fat, and BMI, but it also transmits this information to their servers where you can keep track of this information over time. The data even integrates with the RunKeeper site so you can keep track of your weight as compared to your running progress. If making this information public will help motivate me to eat a little healthier, skip that second cupcake, or further help me maintain a regular running schedule, I don’t think that’s an unhealthy use of technology of social media. So, for the record, here’s my live report for tracking my weight, direct from the scale in my bedroom.

So is all this real world / virtual world social media integration a bad thing? I don’t think it has to be. If it motivates you to try new things, socialize with new people, and get healthier I think it can be a great thing. As always, the key is moderation.