Around seven years ago my friend Kim Gilmour, a fellow technology journalist who had moved to Australia after working on Internet Magazine, found me on Fitbit and added me as a friend. I’d started using one to track my steps a couple of years earlier, when they were small pebbles that you clipped to your belt, and upgraded to a wrist-worn one as the technology improved.
Ten thousands steps may be an arbitrary and unevidenced measure, but having a sense of how much I’d walked in a day and – until they removed the feature – how many stairs I’d climbed was helpful as I negotiated my exercise routine, and the fitbit community was the loosest sort of association with other people.
Then Kim invited me to my first ‘workweek hustle’, a fitbit social feature that let you compare how many steps you walked during the working week (9am monday to 5pm friday in your time zone), along with eight or nine of her other friends. Along with Kenneth O, Karen J, Mich and Handles, each day I’d see how I was doing in the leader board, all made more exciting because most of the participants were in a very different time zone and so I’d leap ahead during the day, only to wake up to find that the Australians had all outstripped me.
I was rarely the winner, but it happened often enough to feel worth aspiring to. And if I looked and found myself trailing badly there was just enough residual guilt to prompt me to walk from King’s Cross to Broadcasting House that morning.
Then in March 2020 the world changed, and walking, exercising and living patterns changed radically. For some in serious lockdown the opportunities to get steps in were limited – I was fortunate never to be stuck indoors. We shared little tales via the chat function, cheered achievements, and were bound by the single data point of ‘how many steps have you walked since monday 9am Sydney time’.
It was lovely. And in three days, five hours and eighteen minutes (as I write) it will come to an end, because four years ago Google bought Fitbit and somewhere within the corporate neural network it’s been decided that a standalone community feature that is freely available, features no advertising, and can’t obviously be monetised is a safe line to delete from the spreadsheet.
So challenges and trophies will go, and I’ll lose the connection to this community. I know (thanks, Ian Forrester) that there are open source alternatives where you can download your data and get similar functionality, but the seamless, simple, gentle experience of opening the fitbit app and seeing your activity in relation to others will be gone.
Fitbit gave me something for seven years that kept my buying their hardware. They’ve taken it away. I no longer need their hardware, and I won’t upgrade again, not as a retaliation, just as a consequence.
There are many wider things for which I could use this as a jumping-off point, and you can almost certainly anticipate them all, from a Webb-style meditation on gentle interfaces, or a Zuckerman-shaped consideration of small communities. Perhaps a Doctorant about the enshittification of even this small corner of the network, or a boyd-style debate about the ways the challenge both exposed and protected those taking part.
But all I really want to do is commemorate the people I shared my steps with over the years, thank Kim for including me each week, and let it go. Thanks for all the ‘cheers’ and the connection.
Places to look
Matt Webb: progress bars and birdsong
Ethan Zuckerman on Small Town
Cory Doctorow on TikTok
danah boyd on failure