Settling My Social Media Dilemma

As I wrote at the start of the year, all of the ways in which social media—Facebook specifically— has been negatively impacting society on a global scale has really killed my engagement and interest in using the platforms. In the seven months since then, there have only been more reports of Facebook’s mishandling of user information and privacy liabilities, culminating in a $5 billion dollar fine they generate per calendar quarter so laughable that their stock went up after it was announced. With government oversight clearly not in play given the ineptitude and corporate influence rampant in the current administration, it would fall on its users to dole out the punishment via a boycott. However, Facebook is too engrained and diversified to be able to eliminate completely. Though I personally haven’t been using the social networks actively and have kept Facebook off my phone, WhatsApp is still the primary external communications tool at the day job. Even if I could delete all my Facebook-owned accounts, I’m keenly aware that user tracking technologies are so advanced that even browsing the web is feeding them data from me via their partner networks.

It’s a bothersome logical conflict between the idea that you’re losing out without gaining anything if you’re not actively using their services since you’re still providing them data anyway, but if you do use them, you’re opening the valve on the data hose and giving them far more information to mishandle & misuse; Facebook’s now primed to create the facial recognition technology stateside that could be used in nefarious ways as they do in China. And that’s just the concerns over domestic threats to society. Just a few weeks ago, I was alerted by a friend of an account that had uploaded my photos with their original captions, triggering a mention notification on their end. Who knows what we’re unintentionally providing information, visual data, and/or avatars for, but in an age of digital warfare and foreign election interference, it’s not so easy to just write it off as a “harmless” spam bot like in the early days of the internet.

iPhone screenshot of an Instagram profile with a Russian username using my profile picture and uploaded photos
A (seemingly) Russian account harvesting my photos

I’ve spent all of this year letting two perspectives battle it out: a rationalist mindset that accepts that change takes time and that there are, or the informed idealist that expects nothing good to come from either big business or government and opts out entirely. It feels irresponsible and unpatriotic to idle by and do nothing, and with the situation looking so bleak by way of solutions, evaluated against both the things I know objectively and my personal ideals, it feels like the best option would be indeed to follow the suggestions of Facebook’s former founders/leads and delete my own accounts. Keeping them open and using them whenever I rarely do makes me feel like a hypocrite, but conversely, one man deleting his accounts isn’t going to make a ripple, considering they’ve already been in a pretty much abandoned state. Then there’s the bigger picture to consider, that many of the problems with Facebook’s operations also apply to a majority of other tech firms, big & small. As a digital worker in today’s world, being able to tap into those networks is virtually required. Like it or not, that is where the public conversation happens.

I’ve known for a while know that I’ve settled, reluctantly, on the side of continuing to use social networking services, and hoping that eventually—sooner rather than later—government gets it together and finds a way to properly oversee & regulate these modern services. It’s just that despite the resulting consequence of not being up to date with what’s going on with many of my peers, not being actively engaged in social media has been so nice. A lot of time and mental bandwidth gets used processing a constant flow of information that largely can’t be acted on, and having reclaimed that for myself this past few months has been so enjoyable I haven’t been in a rush to give it up again. But as it’s said, all good things…

Fitness Tech Tools: The Essentials

Being a “pro-sumer” tech enthusiast, I’ve downloaded and experimented with more apps — in this case, fitness apps specifically — than I care to admit. Since they’ve managed to become important support tools in my weight loss journey, I feel they’re due their own entries. Though my primary goal with this is to log the progress I make, I do carry this secret hope that maybe all this writing may end up motivating others, and capturing how it is that I achieve my progress feels like it’d help in that regard.
In this initial leg of the journey, the personal profile hasn’t changed much: I started a sedentary male in his mid-late 20’s with a long standing smoking habit who resumed his regular running to lose weight and actually started to enjoy it. Without a gym membership at my disposal, my exercise options are fairly limited. At home, the only equipment I have is a swiss ball, a yoga strap, and a pair of 30lb dumbbells, leaving cardio and body weight exercises as my only other available choices. I only do light/moderate weight training, so as to avoid muscle soreness that can get in the way of my running. While there are plenty of services/apps I have bookmarked for advanced workout & weight training, right now my focus is tied primarily to the core tools that I use to quantify myself and my running.

Withings

Back when I was in the market for a bathroom scale, Withings had just released their WS–30 scale, a $99 entry in response to the market price for wifi connected scales pushing below the $100 price point. Being a “smart” device, the scale has a companion app for smartphone connectivity. For the first few months of ownership, the scale & app carried out their intended functions but left a lot to be desired in regard to utility and presentation, so much to the point that I briefly regretted not opting for the competition, Fitbit’s Aria scale. Though the reviews at the time rated them as mostly comparable, the Fitbit scale tended to win out due to it’s aesthetic and integration with their wearable devices. I opted for the Withings ecosystem because it had wider integration with other fitness services/webapps then.
Withings Dashboard Comparison
In the time since I first purchased the scale, my initial investment has more than paid off. Withings redesigned the web dashboard from a very minimal line-graph interface to its present HealthMate platform, optimizing readability of information at a glance and introducing gamification elements. A recent update to the iOS app brought pedometer functionality, which MyFitnessPal also put into their native smartphone app. The timing of this addition was very fortunate, since I recently uninstalled the popular Moves pedometer app after it got Facebook and immediately suffered a privacy policy fiasco. Thanks to the developed level of communication & interaction between the two services, step tracking can be designated to one app and logged metrics will be pushed to both. Step count presence on the webapp and smarthphone dashboards helps centralize the data, giving a more assistive and holistic tracking experience than Moves ever provided.

MyFitnessPal

Withings does a great job facilitating tracking overall progress, but doesn’t provide much by way of nutrition or activity logging (beyond step counting). However, thanks to the aforementioned integration with various third-party services, it’s easy and painless to extend the scale’s functionality. MyFitnessPal is arguably home the web’s most robust food database. In addition to logging food for calorie intake tracking, it also allows users to log exercise to keep a running estimate of calories burned. Since MyFitnessPal has it’s own set of API’s to plug into other services, a lot of the exercise logging ends up being automated — calories burned are calculated off the running step count (from either the Withings app or the MyFitnessPal app), as are activities logged in other support apps.
MyFitnessPal Dashboard
Admittedly, MyFitnessPal is a service that I’ve been underutilizing. The action of food logging and the inherent accountability mechanism makes is easier to resist cravings and stick to dietary guidelines, but the prospect of yet another thing to have to check in with my phone on has dissuaded my use. That, and the frustration in trying to log food that’s cooked at home or off a menu that doesn’t list nutritional data. Yet I realize that the MyFitnessPal service only really works if food intake is regularly logged, and that even rough approximations from similar entries in its database is better than nothing at all. On top of actively logging calories consumed/burned, I’d also like to start tapping into the community on the site. From what I read, it’s really worth checking out.

RunKeeper

MyFitnessPal’s activity tracking features are sufficient for calorie tracking purposes, but the data collected and presented on the user dashboard doesn’t do much in regard to deeper analysis and training. With my efforts being so strongly concentrated on cardiovascular activity via distance running, run tracking apps are a sub-category of fitness apps that I’ve done plenty of experimenting with. The two I’ve ended up liking the most are Strava and RunKeeper. Though I prefer Strava’s design and data presentation, RunKeeper is still attractive in its own right and has the popularity & wide third-party integration that influenced my wifi scale purchasing decision when I was weighing Withings against Fitbit back in 2012.
RunKeeper Dashboard
As with most technology, the service/platform has improved exponentially since I first signed up with it. Free accounts come with a pretty extensive feature set, though putting down the cash for their premium Elite account level opens up some useful extra options such as additional training plans and granular data analysis. As one of the first and leading run tracking apps, RunKeeper supports data capture using fitness sensor accessories, specifically the Wahoo heart rate monitor strap and stride sensor that I own. This assures me that I’m getting as accurate of an estimate as technology can allow at present, and have it automatically shared to my Withings and MyFitnessPal accounts.

Wrap Up

These three apps/services work very well together and cover the basic areas of body tracking: weight, food, and exercise.
With the slight exception of the Withings scale which requires the $99 purchase of the scale, these services can also be used for free. As such, they’re what I’d recommend to anyone trying to lose weight or improve their physical awareness and performance. Once my efforts start to move past running and into other forms of training that can make use of other apps and services, I’ll likely write about them in a similar fashion. To anyone simply looking for advice on how to get started, a wifi connected scale, MyFitnessPal, and RunKeeper are a winning combination.