“The works of Mr. Felton blur the line between art and data. They are a poetic haze of information and well-designed storytelling — and of course, the discipline to collect all this information each year.” – The New York Times
Nick Felton is not your average hoarder. He doesn’t keep books or puppets or clothing stacked nigh to the roof. He isn’t an accidental asphyxiator of kittens, nor an incidental roommate of mice. Nick Felton hoards information, and he does it very, very meticulously.
Felton is the father of the Feltron Annual Report, a scrupulous report on all the details of his life in infographic form. The Feltron Annual Report, like annual reports from banks or other financial institutions, quantifies various transactions or encounters or movements and tell a story about them—such as the average number of haircuts taken in a year, or the time spent talking with friends, or the places visited.
Felton then depicts the information on intricate graphs or maps. These graphs paint a general picture of his life over the course of a year:
The first year he began his annual reporting, 2005, Felton kept things simple. According to the NYT:
[Felton] looked through his music archives to see how many songs he had listened to. He checked his airline ticket stubs to see how many miles he had flown. He aggregated the number of books read and photos taken.
Four years later, in 2009, Felton began asking his friends and acquaintances to fill out a survey after each significant encounter they had with him:
Each day in 2009, I asked every person with whom I had a meaningful encounter to submit a record of this meeting through an online survey. These reports form the heart of the 2009 Annual Report. From parents to old friends, to people I met for the first time, to my dentist … any time I felt that someone had discerned enough of my personality and activities, they were given a card with a URL and unique number to record their experience.
I kept track only of who I gave survey invitations to, the number of the card and where it was given. The survey answers were submitted via text forms, allowing the respondee to write whatever they desired, and leaving the task of making comparisons between the data up to me. I have used only this information to create the report, however accurate it may be. I have strived to sort and collate the data in a clinical and repeatable manner that could be reproduced by someone looking for the same stories I have selected.
His 2009 Feltron Report enlisted independent verification standards for data gathering in addition to self-reporting methods. Needless to say, that year’s report turned out be more intricate than any one of its predecessors. He kept track of each beer he drank, for example. Every day. For 365 days.
You can find all of Felton’s Annual Reports here.
Felton was eventually recruited by Facebook. His work has been described as a “huge inspiration” for Facebook’s development of Timeline, the social media company’s attempt to give users a better visual representation of the scope of their social footprint. Felton was instrumental in solving the problem of a profile page “discriminat[ing] against the past.” On an traditional profile page, users only get to see the most recent posts. Timeline cracks this problem by aggregating significant posts on a visual timeline that extends down, on a single page, to the very beginning of one’s social media presence on Facebook. These graphed items rest beside pockets of Feltonian information, such as the number of “likes” one’s given out or the number of friends one’s made.
There is little denying that Felton has had a profound influence on infographics, design, and social media. But what kind of a picture does Felton paint? Felton is robotically exact when counting the instances of repetition, but what of their content, of their meaning? Felton’s reports run the risk of mistaking the forest for the trees.
It turns out that Felton is telling a very specific story. What does emerge from his reports is a loving examination of the story of patterns, rather than the patterns of story. We see Felton chugging, on average per day, more beers than he does waters. What’s lost here is the micro: the narrative wrapped up in the hypothetical time he drank more than he needed to. What’s gained is the macro: his tendencies, his rhythms, his wont. Of course, these generalities form a different kind of narrative, the sort of which might be exceedingly charming to an alien looking at the human species from a distance.
Bravo to Felton for such a peerless undertaking. His science gives us insight into a different kind of art. When pictures fade and hands get old, generations of Feltonians will have a curious artifact to pour over.