Chris Dancy is “the world’s most connected person”: a technology executive, consultant, and thinker who tracks every aspect of his life with as many as 700 digital sensors — and then makes most of that data public on his website.
He began his obsessive quantification of daily activity — calories consumed and burned, sleep, heart rate, steps per day, online habits, even the decibels at which he speaks into his phone — initially due to health concerns, long before Fitbits and Apple Watches were common. By anticipating the rise of the “quantified self” movement and taking it to the extreme, Dancy has become an evangelist for the insights provided by close tracking, as well as a sort of canary for the data-rich coal mine into which our lives are heading. He has given TED talks, been a profile subject in Wired, and was featured in the Showtime documentary series “Dark Net.” His podcast is called “Mindful Cyborgs.” His autobiography about the connected life is due out later this year from St. Martin’s Press.
Dancy’s other endeavors include running a business-to-business software company, Compassware (which uses Seed for banking), as well as speaking engagements and consulting gigs. We spoke with him about how he built his brand; why he thinks “micro-engagement” is the future of social media; and what true authenticity will mean for business in an ever-more-connected future.
You’ve created a public identity that encompasses so many facets, from your businesses to the details of how you live, sleep, and eat. Was it something you created, or did it arise naturally?
It was something that I purposely did. In the early 2000s, I realized that a lot of what people wanted and how they defined their lives came from what they found online. Then by 2008, with the onslaught of social, there were some obvious signs that who you were externally was going to be a lot different than who you were internally. While I never went to optimize any phrasing, “Most connected man,” or anything like that, that’s what happened. But a lot of my early writing and tweeting between 2008 and 2012 was about digital identity and the importance of it. I’m now very findable and approachable and all that, but I couldn’t recreate that if I started today.
Why not? Because your identity has been growing all these years along with the internet?
Right. The odds of building a digital identity are stacking up against people. In 2010, I used to tell people if you want to be a brand, whether you’re a company or a person, you have to make sure that you’re in every single app on a phone. Have a podcast, make sure you’re in someone’s contacts, make sure they can find you in Facebook. But the problem today is, if you take that same concept, it doesn’t matter, because what happens within those apps is splintered. Now, you need to find yourself in every single content platform within those apps. Within Snapchat, you’ve got three or four different paths to virality and popularity. And I don’t know anyone that’s got that type of breadth or time.
Where do you see it going?
It’s going to come back to micro-engagement. I don’t even know if that’s a thing, but that’s how I look at it. You need to find little teeny places to interact with the right sets of people to set off something, so that you can get in front of [more of] those people.
People worry about mastering each new social platform and that each one will turn into a huge commitment of time and energy. Is that how you see it?
Too many people worry about managing all the platforms. Realize that people are just there to consume your stuff passively. It’s no different than hiring a celebrity to sell orange juice on a TV commercial. You’re just there. You’re watching for the celebrity, you’re not really watching for the orange juice.
Is your branding a collaboration? Do you bounce ideas off co-workers, or friends, or a significant other?
It’s all me. I have a significant other and friends and things, but they’re not interested in what I do. I kind of feel like I left the human race some time ago. Most people can’t even get their head around what I’m saying. [Many] people who use all of these tools, they’ve lost the ability to see the tool for their purpose. It’s become merged. And I see all these things still as tools. When I do marketing conferences, those people still see the tools as tools, but those people are scary, because they’re the ones who are making the tool disappear. Their job is to make it not look like marketing.
Tell me about the tension between your internal self and your online self.
One of my best friends once said to me, “Chris, you made your work life your life’s work.” And what I liked about that was, I didn’t become my Instagram feed, my Instagram feed was me. Now, of course, like everyone else, there was an evolution where I was the feed. I became the fake version that I created on Facebook. But I then went through phases after that, where my desperation to not be seen as the thing I created drove engagement. I combined the quantified self and social media before most people thought it was even interesting or possible. The interesting thing about that versus becoming your Instagram feed was, well, do I let myself get unhealthy? If I don’t sleep well, the world knows.
And you think we’re moving toward a point where this is commonplace.
I think we’re there now. I own a Tesla, and every single Tesla owner I’ve met has a wearable [device]. As far as information being hyper-personal and then being shareable, we’re right at the precipice. What Fitbit did in 2011 and 2012 with friends and community, Apple did two years ago with the Apple Watch. Now, we see a lot of Apple Watches and people sharing data. It’ll be more commonplace, where people are forced to live their generated inauthentic-authentic digital health life. But there are worse things than people who are getting enough sleep and meditating.
Transparency and authenticity are a key part of your brand. Is that essential nowadays to being a successful business?
If I could shop and do business with companies and see how their employees are behaving, that would make a choice for me. I literally want a score on every single place I go to shop to see how their people are being treated. Because I think if we made the metric not sales and customer service, but service to each other, it would change not only the businesses, but the economy. So, I do think it’s important for businesses to be authentic, but I think they need to become radically authentic. They need to have their employees opt-in to being measured as heavily as I am, and they need to opt-in to anonymously posting that data. [Authenticity] is a buzzword until then.
Tell me about how Seed helps you run your business.
We [at Compassware] were an early Seed customer because I loved some of the projects that Ryan [ had been involved in earlier. For me the idea of a completely mobile bank [account] was just intoxicating, because I was already on my phone doing things anyway. To me, Seed was very much in the vein of a digital WeWork. It’s almost like social-business banking. And just the way the application functions and the ease with which you can do things like pay bills and make deposits, it’s all where banking should be now for a business. The problem is there’s been no real innovation in business banking at the non-digital level. There’s been some consumer stuff done, but no one’s really done for business banking what I think Seed is trying to do, and I’m really proud to be a part of that early movement.
Are there any other pieces of advice or principles of the realm you’d like to share?
Well there’s one that I love by a mathematician named Richard A. Tapia: “We don’t know how to measure what we care about, so we care about what we measure.” I think in an age where people are increasingly concerned about what they’re measuring or not measuring, just take time to think carefully about what you care about. Even if you can’t measure it, knowing it makes a difference.