The most intriguing visualization tool I’ve encountered is a bit unexpected: one that was made to highlight privacy issues and the NSA’s wide-reaching surveillance snooping program of Internet e-mails, telephone calls, and all data traffic. MIT’s Immersion. Daniel Smilkov (@dmilkov2), Deepak Jagdish (@dj247), and César Hidalgo (@cesifoti) from MIT Media Lab created this tool to demonstrate what kind of connections the U.S. federal government can infer by scraping Gmail metadata, including the From, To, Cc, and Timestamp headers.
You can use this metadata yourself to see who you contact most often via Gmail and perform your own analyses.
With Immersion, you can decide to map 10%, 20%, or more of your top e-mail correspondees. And, you can step through different periods of time: who did you contact the most last month? Last year? Or ever, with Gmail?
Each circle represents a person you’ve contacted. The circle size represents how much e-mail has been sent back and forth. The colors try to group persons into networks based on how often that person appears in the To or CC headers in the same e-mails. The red and blue cluster of people, for instance, are my fellow co-workers/co-residents. The gray cluster of people represent my family.
What’s useful about Immersion? Three things:
1. Discover your top 20 e-mail collaborators for any given time period.
Then, ask yourself, “Is it really important that I spend the majority of my time with these particular recipients?” Or is that time better spent on fostering relationships with other people you’ve neglected? The Asian Efficiency blog puts it very well on their post on the 80/20 rule: that is, 20% of the effort should generate 80% of the results you want in life:
Richard Koch’s book, The 80/20 Principle, features three provocative hypotheses in the chapter “With a Little Help from Our Friends”:
- Eighty percent of the value of our relationships comes from 20 percent of the relationships.
- Eighty percent of the value of our relationships comes from the 20 percent of close relationships that we form first in our lives.
- We devote much less than 80 percent of our attention to the 20 percent of relationships that create 80 percent of the value
2. Re-connect with those to whom you haven’t spoken in awhile.
The tool allows you to find out whom you contacted 3 months ago, then see — via animation — whether their circle size shrinks to the present, indicating that you haven’t spoken to them in some time. It also lists your top collaborators for your specific time period, which you can compare to see if a friend and contact inadvertently dropped off your radar.
3. Discover whether your network truly is insular or diverse.
Assuming you primarily use e-mails to communicate, you can use Immersion to see in which networks you spend the most time. In my case, I see that I do a pretty good job of keeping in touch with my friends in healthcare and keep in touch with my immediate family, but that I tend to e-mail people who are similar to me.
I tend to stick to the California area. I also don’t really know as many people as I should in other industries and specialties (and I’m grappling with this idea personally, as numerous business books — including Uzzi’s Harvard Business Review article which I briefly covered — encourage diversity in network)
There are a lot of isolated orange dots as well in my diagram, because I recently have been attempting to re-kindle my old friendships that have fallen by the wayside. I also do a not-so-good job at keeping in touch with my old MBA classmates. These isolated dots represent personal one-on-one e-mail correspondence.
The advantages of this is that an enormous number of real-life correspondence goes through e-mail. It is the Internet’s oldest social networking tool. It doesn’t require you to hunt down or “add” people. And it includes a lot of data on how much you collaborate with persons.
Send me your insights into these diagrams, too, and post your thoughts below! I’d love to hear your ideas on how we can use these diagrams to improve our relationships.