Has digital technology quantified self-help book advice?

man using stylus pen for touching the digital tablet screen

In my blog post, Digital Media Embellishes Indie Self-help Books But…, I pondered the potential diluting of self-help messages (along with the impact upon authors of such works), through digital assimilation of self-help titles.

I indicated I felt gratified readers can, no matter their reading impairments, increasingly access printed self-help literature in various forms.

What I also flagged, however, was the possible detrimental effect of commodification upon self-help literature: effecting both the efficacy of the message and authors’ requirements to become proficient in digital mediums to market their burgeoning brand.

To take this a step further, curiosity led me to wonder how Silicon Valley integrates technology, standards, and values into self-help literature and how this influences quantification of these messages.

That is, if apps designed to complement print self-help books provide standardised, quantifiable outcomes by which the user can manage their personal growth, how does this affect self-help advice perceptions?

To gain insights into this conundrum, I asked University of Bristol sociologist and self-help literature expert, Dr Patricia Neville, to share her thoughts in a short 4 minute podcast. Click on the link below to have a quick listen…

Dr Patricia Neville

Dr Patricia Neville is a Lecturer in Social Sciences at Bristol Dental School since 2014. Prior to this she lectured at University College Cork, University of Limerick and Griffith College Cork.
She is a sociologist who studied at University College Cork(BA, MA) and the University of Limerick(PhD). Her PhD thesis was on the phenomenon of popular psychology and self-help culture. 
Her current research explores oral health from a social sciences perspective, working largely within the qualitative research tradition. In particular, she is interested in gender, inclusion and diversity issues within the dental profession, dental professionalism and the impact of digitial technology on dentistry and dental professionalism.

Podcast Transcript:



Samantha (music in background): Hi there and welcome to the podcast. My name’s Samantha and I’m interested in issues related to self-help books. In this podcast, I ponder the question, ‘Has digital technology quantified self-help book advice’?

To get some insights, I speak with Dr Patricia Neville, a sociologist from the University of Bristol who has done a great deal of research into the area of self-help books.


Samantha: So, Patricia, with respect to digital technology, people are discovering new ways to engage with self-help literature. But by engaging with these mediums, such as apps, do you think self-help messages are subtly shifting?

Dr Patricia Neville: …But I think what I find interesting about the impact that social media and digital technology has had on the whole self-help movement, is how it has, as you’ve just rightly said, the conversation has sort of slightly changed to one where, again, it’s about efficacy, it’s about, well, is this worthwhile?

Is it having an impact?

You know, can we measure the impact that it’s having on people’s lives, and self-help books were never about metrics were never about, you know, you know, about that sort of very objective scientific approach, because they, that wasn’twhat their purpose [was].

Their purpose was affirmation of their purpose. I think was it was about the connection you had with the text, and it was about the internal conversation [you] was going to spark for you.

And it wasn’t something that was necessarily evident or manifests itself in a way that [you] could be measured, objectively.

I feel you, when you talk to self-help readers, I mean, the transformation is so within that, they say, well, it’s just the way I now approach my relationships differently.

My relationship with my son is different or my relationship (trails off here), but it’s again, it’s not something that possibly the other party necessarily can pinpoint.

But it’s something that the individuals feels; that they now have a different purpose, or they have a more/a different approach to how they interact with individuals…

..let’s just say, where’s the conversation, once it’s moved, self-help book, self-help, has moved into the world of apps and the world of, [of], especially apps, I think the conversation has almost been about shifts to sort of legitimising them as something as a science – as almost as scientific and seeing them as legitimate ways of improving health and wellbeing.

And I just find that an interesting shift.

Because I think, again, if you could think about it sociologically step back and say, well, it could also be that ultimately, that starts from [four] metrics that starts for something quantifiable effect, that we can start pinpointing how whether it’s beneficial or not, that’s quite neoliberal in its thinking.

That’s a great point [and] about both the accountability of the individual: it’s about you, and again, having a particular you know, you’re taking full responsibility for your life.

And this is now,this is how we’re going to measure whether you’re effective individual or not. We’re going to, you know, how you consume and these particular products that you consume, and whether they’re having actual impact or not in your life.

So it’s just, for me, it’s slightly changing the conversation around what self-help books were all about.


Samantha (music in background): Hmmm interesting.

So, whilst many have often argued that a neoliberal agenda is at play within self-help material, I must admit I didn’t think about it in terms of measurability.

That is, rather than self-help books helping people to become subjectively different in their thoughts and behaviours, the insertion of digital technology is assuming that any changes made can be measured against some sort of ideal, objective truth.

Hmmm interesting…


Note: Permission was sought and granted for the recording of the interview.

So, Dr Patricia Neville notes that the intertwining of digital technologies into self-help literature has certainly altered the conversation surrounding their utilisation.

Initially, readers’ prime concern in referring to the genre was whether they connected with the text and had a meaningful internal conversation leading them from one relative position to another. This wasn’t necessarily discernible to others and certainly wasn’t measurable.

Digital technology, such as apps, however, has shifted the conversation, Dr Neville contends, to one where priorities are with concepts including efficacy, impact, and measurability.

To some degree, apps have served as a tool to achieve a degree of scientific legitimisation of proffered self-help themes.

They have also produced a pathway that facilitates measurability of ‘personal growth’ against an ‘objective truth’; a standardised, universal paradigm by which we can judge the effectiveness of individuals. This arguably links to neoliberal ideals of personal responsibility and accountability.

And in Dr Neville’s view, this is changing the conversation about what self-help books were traditionally about. 

As previously alluded to, I hope integration of technological advancements into self-help literature doesn’t mitigate their value. Furthermore, I wonder how this form of personal growth ‘externalisation’ impacts users’ perceptions of identity. So much to research, so little time…

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