Maptivism: how Strava affords identity work

6 minutes to read
Column
Ruben den Boer
20/06/2022

While I catch my breath, I take my phone out of the back pocket of my jersey. Tracking and sharing my bicycle rides on the Strava app is a steadfast part of my exercise routine. But today, my routine is shaken up by a new option. I can give my self-tracked route a color. But my choices are limited. I can choose from Black Lives Matter-colors, Pride-colors, or Solidarity with Ukraine-colors. At first glance, it seems weird to share such political statements through a route map on a self-tracking app. But arguably, it is emblematic of how individuals construct and present their identities in a post-digital world.

The Black Lives Matter, Pride and Solidarity with Ukraine maps colors

Self-tracking exercise through the years

Self-tracking athletic performances is not new. Before digital media, self-tracking was done manually. You'd write down your performance data to look back on it to analyze at a later time (e.g. Van den Heuvel, 2015). As online services and digital technologies such as the FitBit wearable self-tracking device advanced during the early 21st century, self-tracking was digitalized (Crawford et al., 2015). This digitalization led to new data flows through “devices, consumers, companies, institutions, social networks and back again” (Crawford et al., 2015). It also allowed the shift from self-tracking as an individual practice to a social one. 

Strava as a social media platform

Strava is an important online space for social self-tracking. Its 95 million users (McCaskill, 2021) share their tracked athletic performances on their profiles. They can add pictures, titles and descriptions before posting it on the timeline of their followers, who can leave kudos and comments. It's clear that Strava is not only a self-tracking app, it is an Online Social Fitness Network (Rivers, 2019). 

Strava users continuously negotiate among themselves what the ideal representation of the self looks like

The social aspect of sharing an activity on Strava is inherently discursive (Rivers, 2019). We can therefore view the platform as a discursive field of practice, just like Facebook and Instagram. Similar to on these traditional social platforms, Strava users continuously negotiate among themselves what the ideal representation of the self looks like. They do so through (multimodal) semiotic signs, including data graphs, route maps, kudos and comments (Rivers, 2019).

This ideal representation is developed not only through the denotational meanings of the data, maps and discussions, but even more so through the indexical cues that these semiotic signs inherently provide (Blommaert, 2005). In addition to saying something about the activity, these signs also point towards a certain identity presented by the user that shares the activity. This is how Strava affords identity work.

Strava Art

It is worth zooming in on one multimodal semiotic sign that takes center stage in the Strava interface: the route map. During an athletic activity, Strava tracks your geolocation. Once you complete an activity, the app visualizes your traveled route on a map. Some users deploy this affordance discursively by planning and completing routes to create Strava Art (Stravart, n.d.). Most users make Strava Art for the fun or challenge of it. But some Strava Art conveys an explicit political or societal message. For example: during the corona crisis, British users used Strava Art to show their support for the National Healthcare Service (NHS) workers. 

Even though it is only a small subset of the Strava user base that actually makes Strava Art, it is a practice that is known and loved by almost all users. It therefore becomes a way for the platform to keep users engaged. Users might follow specific people in order to regularly see new Strava Art, or they might feel inspired to try to make Strava Art themselves. Additionally, Strava Art is often shared outside the Strava app, e.g. on Twitter, which might persuade new users to try the self-tracking app out. 

Strava Art. Left: a heart for the NHS (Inman, 2020, via strav.art, 2022). Right: recreation of ‘Bruderkuss’

A unique identity

Strava Art might appear insignificant in the life project of post-digital identity work. And you would be correct in assuming that a map on Strava is merely a detail. But in a post-digital world that increasingly revolves around uniformity, these little details or accents acquire the status of “fundamental aspects of being” (Blommaert & Varis, 2015) when we construct and present our identities. With them, we indexically present ourselves as part of a broad category, and as someone who deviates from it.

On Strava, everybody is at least somewhat athletic. But by planning and completing an artistic route, users can show that they are creative athletes. And by drawing a heart on their city, users can show that they are athletes that respect and support healthcare workers. Of course, these accents carry yet another layer of indexical meaning. They can be read in relation to social categories. And they can provoke judgement by others (Blommaert & Varis, 2015).  

Slack/maptivism

When we take this indexical quality of Strava maps and combine it with the political quality of the colors users can now choose from before sharing their maps, an important question arises: do the users that apply these colors to their route maps really care about the political message they are broadcasting to their followers? Or are they more concerned with how the act of broadcasting this political message will indexically reflect on their identity as perceived by their followers, as is so often the case with the kind of online, feel-good, shallow, low-risk activism known as slacktivism (Morozov, 2012)? 

The moral underpinnings of slacktivism are cause for continuous debate

By applying BLM, Pride or Solidarity with Ukraine colors to their route, users do not donate money, sign a petition, or take any other form of political action. At most, we can view this feature as a tool for political discussion and a form of indexical self-expression (Dennis, 2019). One that provides Strava with an extra layer of data that can flow through an undisclosed amount of actors (Rettberg, 2020). And in comparison to the effort that goes into planning and completing a route that carries discursive and indexical meaning, the use of these political colors is just one effortless click away. 

Therefore, we can label the use of these colors as a sophisticated form of slacktivism (Morozov, 2012) – or ‘maptivism', if you will – afforded by Strava. The moral underpinnings of such slacktivism are cause for continuous debate (for a comprehensive discussion, see Dennis, 2019). But we can conclude that this maptivism afforded by Strava provides individuals with accents that they can deploy as part of their identity work (Blommaert & Varis, 2015).

Considering this, I can be sure that by clicking ‘post activity' once I've caught my breath, I won't just share the exertion of my physical body, I will also share the exertion of my post-digital identity.

References

Blommaert, J. (2005). Discourse: A Critical Introduction (Key Topics in Sociolinguistics) (Illustrated ed.). Cambridge University Press.
 

Blommaert, J., & Varis, P. (2015). Culture as Accent. In Enoughness, accent and light communities: Essays on contemporary identities (pp. 16–29). https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/sites/default/files/download/TPCS_139_...
 

Crawford, K., Lingel, J., & Karppi, T. (2015). Our metrics, ourselves: A hundred years of self-tracking from the weight scale to the wrist wearable device. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 18(4–5), 479–496. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367549415584857
 

Dennis, J. (2019). Beyond Slacktivism: Political Participation on Social Media (Interest Groups, Advocacy and Democracy Series) (Softcover reprint of the original 1st ed. 2019 ed.). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-00844-4
 

McCaskill, S. (2021, December 7). Strava records 1.8bn activities in 2021 as connected fitness growth continues. Sports Pro Media. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from https://www.sportspromedia.com/news/strava-connected-fitness-users-activ...
 

Morozov, E. (2012). Why Kierkegaard hates Slacktivism. In The Net Delusion (pp. 179–204). PublicAffairs.
 

Rettberg, J. W. (2020). Situated data analysis: a new method for analysing encoded power relationships in social media platforms and apps. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-0495-3 
 

Rivers, D. J. (2020). Strava as a discursive field of practice: Technological affordances and mediated cycling motivations. Discourse, Context & Media, 34, 100345. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcm.2019.100345 
 

Stravart. (n.d.-a). Stravart. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from https://www.strav.art/home 
 

Stravart. (n.d.-b). strav.art — Hearts. Strav.Art. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from https://www.strav.art/hearts 
 

Stravart. (n.d.-c). strav.art — People. Strav.Art. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from https://www.strav.art/people-1 
 

van den Heuvel, M. (2015, May 9). Tim Krabbé, de Veertiende Etappe en een reis naar de Mont Ventoux. HP/De Tijd. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from https://www.hpdetijd.nl/2015-05-09/tim-krabbe-de-veertiende-etappe-en-ee...