Hacking Social Media to Tell Meaningful Data Visualization Stories: Exploring Anxiety with Embroidery
I started this project when I found myself having a hard time explaining what anxiety is to others. Mental health is something that is not tangible and is very difficult to put to words. Despite this challenge, I still wanted to show it somehow. I came up with the idea to record my own experience with anxiety and visualize what I learned in the process.
For 21 days, I logged the details of my anxiety on my phone. I kept track of triggering incidents and thoughts that were going through my head at the time. After I collected the data, I plotted them using MS Powerpoint to see the trends.
Through the process of organizing the data, I identified 5 thought patterns I had.
1) What if I fail?
2) What if I’m not liked?
3) What if I die from this?
4) What if things never get better?
Defining the Form
As an information designer, I didn’t want to be restricted by the form my work would take shape in. I have been wanting to make something analog. When I initially plotted the data, it resembled cross-stitch fabric, and I had the idea to stitch the data onto fabric.
After seeing the graph on Powerpoint, I transferred it to Illustrator to test out different colour combinations. I went onto the website of my local craft shop and took some sample colours they had. Through that, I chose colours that varied in hue and saturation. I had to create a palette of five colours, one colour for each thought pattern.
Documenting the Process
After I decided on the colours, it is now time to stitch this data viz. I started off with the axes. This actually took me the longest time to develop, I had to carefully count the spaces for the axis to make it even. I seriously took software for granted for making evenly-spaced axes.
As I was creating this, I was documenting the process on social media. I decided to take a new approach on data storytelling by combining visual essays with long-form post on social media.
The landmarks of the core content lied in the five thought patterns I learned about. The first was “What if I fail”. I renamed the title of the graph as I populated data for each new thought pattern. For each thought pattern, I described in detail what it felt like to have those thoughts.
I believed that this would be an effective method of content distribution because it breaks down the story into manageable chunks for viewers. I have been seeing a growing trend of visual essays, the ones that come to mind would be those done by The Pudding. I decided to take a spin on that and instead of having one large essay, I essentially stretched the content of one visualization piece over a series of 9 posts. This is similar to how Humans of New York approach journalism on their Facebook page. Brandon Stanton publishes deep and raw interviews with people through long-form posts. Through depth in content, he is able to achieve quality, and I believe this is how one can resonate with their audience.
I have seen many post infographics/data viz on social media without providing much context. I believe words continue to be underestimated. Words, whether spoken or written, hold a lot of weight because they can create meaning. If I published my visualization without much text in the caption, people would not be able to connect with my data. I think there is so much more opportunity to create connection between data and people if words were given more value.
Here is what I wrote on the thought pattern “What If Things Never Get Better?”
“All the light blue lines in the chart are times when I worry about worrying. I wonder if I will always be anxious, if I will always ruminate on the negative, and if I would ever change. On day 15, I ponder why I am the way I am. I get frustrated that I can’t change how I react to situations and am at the mercy of my emotions. It leads to a downward spiral of thoughts that just seem hopeless. I am reminded of how I despise this feeling and how I really want to change. This motivates me to do something, to change my circumstances. It’s not easy to take action, until it becomes really threatening. I have been to a place where I don’t see life as interesting or meaningful, and that terrifies me. It is like taking colour away from me, life loses so much meaning. I am working hard to become well. I am learning that the path to wellness is a path that does not remove anxiety, but allows me to live with it. This is extremely hard to accomplish. It means I will have to be able to live with contradiction. I will have to be able to process thoughts of worry and calm at the same time. It might take years or decades to accomplish this. I have to learn to be aware of each thought that I have and alter it to be more in line with reality. Will things get better? Only time will tell. Did you notice what just happened there? I didn’t jump to conclusions. I have no evidence it will get better, but I also don’t have any evidence it will get worse. And this is the first step to wellness. [This is part 4/5 of a series exploring anxiety with data visualization]”
This project is by far the most personal and difficult one I have ever done. I initially wanted to record data for 30 days, but I only managed 21 days. This was because it was so hard to stay conscious of something so deeply unconscious. For 21 days, I was looking inwards and understanding what my brain was doing. This was incredibly difficult to do, but I am glad I did.
I had 3 main goals with this project:
1) To help me learn more about myself
2) To allow others to learn more about mental health, specifically anxiety
3) To push my boundaries in data design as a creative
As I was working on this project, I also hoped for another outcome: that people would see the potential of data visualization could have in changing how we think. I believe data visualization puts form to something that is formless, it makes things less abstract and it allows us to understand. People are always seeking to find meaning in things. I think this is one of the ways I can help meaning form.