Digital Traces of Smartphone Self-Extension

Scholars have long interrogated the boundary between possessions and the self (e.g., James, 1890). In this tradition, Belk (1988) proposed self-extension as the extent to which “we regard our possessions as parts of ourselves” (p. 139). Self-extension has been applied to a variety of possessions, but a growing literature has applied it to possessions that are almost always on the self: mobile communication technologies. A large body of scholarship described the mobile phone as an extension of the self (e.g., Gant & Kiesler, 2002). In recent years, the uptake of smartphones has expanded the ways in which mobile communication technology both informs and reflects the self: People express their identities by calling family members, checking work emails, and tracking step counts, and smartphones serve as a repository for many aspects of self through the information they contain. Accordingly, an increasing number of studies have examined smartphone self-extension (e.g., Park & Kaye, 2019). However, extant work suggests that smartphone self-extension is only loosely related to actual smartphone behavior (e.g., Ellis et al., 2019), calling its real-world impact into question. This paper clarifies how self-extension relates to behavior by examining more granular and theoretically grounded behaviors derived from a large, multi-faceted dataset of digital traces: data that are passively recorded on mobile devices. I integrate work on smartphone self-extension and extended cognition (e.g., Heersmink & Sutton, 2020) to provide rationale for hypotheses linking smartphone self-extension with digital trace measures (e.g., the frequency and variety of using specific smartphone functions; smartphone use across spatial contexts). I will interpret the findings through the lens of three key processes that clarify how mobile technologies can be interwoven with identity: expression, extension, and reflection. I will conclude by zooming out to discuss the implications of smartphone self-extension for the broader interplay of digital technologies and identities.

Belk, R. (1988). Possessions and the extended self. Journal of Consumer Research, 15(2), 139-168.
Ellis, D. A., Davidson, B. I., Shaw, H., & Geyer, K. (2019). Do smartphone usage scales predict behavior? International Journal of Human Computer Studies, 130, 86–92.
Gant, D., & Kiesler, S. (2002). Blurring the boundaries: Cell phones, mobility, and the line between work and personal life. In B. Brown, N. Green, & R. Harper (Eds.), Wireless world (pp. 121-131). Springer.
Heersmink, R., & Sutton, J. (2020). Cognition and the web: Extended, transactive, or scaffolded? Erkenntnis, 85(1), 139-164.
James, W. (1890). Principles of psychology. Holt.
Park, C. S., & Kaye, B. K. (2019). Smartphone and self-extension: Functionally, anthropomorphically, and ontologically extending self via the smartphone. Mobile Media and Communication, 7(2), 215–231.


Morgan Quinn Ross

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Digital Humanities Tilburg