We rarely think twice when sending an email, or adding a few CCs just for good measure. But these small interactions add up, and when deconstructed en masse, will reveal more about you than you might ever expect.
Immersion is an interactive network data visualization created at MIT Media Lab’s Macro Connections group by Deepak Jagdish, Daniel Smilkov and Cesar Hidalgo. All you do is give the site access to your Gmail account. It promises to look only at the email headers: From, To, CC, and timestamp fields within your email history. And through the wonders of data mining, it will build an extremely accurate web of your personal relationships.
“We are basically counting each multi-personal email as an expression of a connection between the people involved in that email,” Hidalgo tells me.
Interestingly enough, Immersion started as a quest to redesign the email inbox. Given that your email is always presented in a list, the young network scientists thought they could reimagine the experience. They were, in part, successful, but they also managed to demonstrate the horrors of digging too deep, along with unsettling nature of how much information we share in seemingly innocuous ways.
“Certainly, we would like to evoke feelings of reflection,” Hidalgo explains. “By experiencing Immersion, we are hoping people would question the way they are connecting with others, and reflect about the relationships that they need to strengthen or let go. Also, Immersion shows people the data that they have shared with others, so it provides an opportunity for people to know the intimacy of the picture that companies/governments have about them.”
Trying Immersion for myself, the overloaded servers took the better part of a day to pull in 150,337 of my Gmails from the past several years. But when they finished, I was greeted by a color-coded web of clusters with a familiarity I couldn’t have prepared for. There was a cluster of friends. A cluster of family. There were two clusters for jobs, with old bosses appearing as large dots at the center and my colleagues circling like planets around the sun.
What was remarkable was not only the accuracy but the specificity. People who I’d emailed just a handful of times often have reasonable spots on this map, bridging the gap between two people I know or places I’ve worked. One-off friends and mentors who’ve helped me through the years float in the periphery, disconnected from the wheeling and dealing of my everyday life. And of course, there’s no escaping the feeling of seeing names of people who were once extremely important in your world–ballooning in stark mathematics to prove that importance–who are virtual strangers today.
I loaded Immersion expecting to be disgusted by just how much of my life that my iPhone, Thunderbird, and Mailbox can deduce about me from the most superficial data they see (and I was!). But I left Immersion with a mental nausea of personal and professional failures, and a grounding reminder that just because something or someone is important to me today is no guarantee that they will be important in my future.