First Look

Immersion: The surprising history and connections in your messaging network

Analyzing your messaging history generates insights into who you talk to and how important they are to you.

MIT's Immersion user interface
Credit: Mark Gibbs

You probably think have a pretty good idea of who you interact with via email but if your business life is email-driven then the chance that you have anything other than a  rough idea is pretty low. The problem is that our messaging interactions are so frequent and so complex that we can only have a biased view of who is really important to us. I say “biased” because when it comes to the question of who is important in our network of connections we’ll tend to rate those who we either really like or who we are really forced to communicate with due to obligations, and we really only have a sense about the recent past. Our history escapes us.

If you’d like to get a better picture of your messaging social network now and in the past you need to check out the MIT Immersion project.

Immersion is a browser-based service that connects to your email account on Gmail, MS Exchange, or Yahoo and, after grabbing your metadata, graphs your connections. Here’s how the project describes itself:

Immersion is an invitation to dive into the history of your email life in a platform that offers you the safety of knowing that you can always delete your data. / Just like a cubist painting, Immersion presents users with a number of different perspectives of their email data. / It provides a tool for self-reflection at a time where the zeitgeist is one of self-promotion. / It provides an artistic representation that exists only in the presence of the visitor. / It helps explore privacy by showing users data that they have already shared with others. / Finally, it presents users wanting to be more strategic with their professional interactions, with a map to plan more effectively who they connect with. / So Immersion is not about one thing. It’s about four. It’s about self-reflection, art, privacy and strategy. It’s about providing users with a number of different perspectives by leveraging on the fact that the web, and emails, are now an important part of our past.

Here’s my graph for 216,507 messages over 13.4 years-worth exchanged with 1,273 email collaborators (the names for each node have been removed):

My email network over 13.4 years Mark Gibbs

My email network over 13.4 years

Email network stats Mark Gibbs

My email network stats

"Ah!" you might be muttering, "That doesn't look like 1,273 collaborators!" and you'd be right. The project's FAQ explains:

Immersion requires a minimum of 3 sent and received emails for a contact to be considered as a collaborator and be part of the visualization. This allows Immersion to filter out entities such as mailing lists, social network notifications, promotional emails, spam, etc. By default, the visualization shows the top one hundred contacts, but you can look at more contacts by using the sliders on the top left of the visualization.

So, the nodes represent email addresses you’ve sent messages to and received messages from at least three times and the size of the node is proportional to the total number of send and receives. The nodes are clustered according to exchanges between nodes that I’ve been copied on (either CC: or BCC:) and several things jump out right away:

  • My editor at Network World (he’s the big, angry purple mode) is the person I most frequently exchange mail with which is not surprising
  • Close friends are easily identifiable
  • Email lists I subscribe to are easily identified and the fact that my two top lists share a lot of members is obvious (that's the blue cluster)
  • Family connections are also apparent
  • Other relationship clusters are easily identified.

In essence, this is the kind of graph that the NSA gets to play with and, if you have the patience, you can use the slider settings at the bottom of the page to see how your relationships have evolved over time (again, the NSA knows all of this already).

There are also settings almost at the top on the left (they aren't shown in the screen shots because the controls fade in when you mouse over them) that allow you to change how the graph is structured. By moving these to their limits new insights emerge; for example:

My email network over 13.4 years Mark Gibbs

My email network over 13.4 years

Now the main groupings really stand out and the fact that there are two overlapping mail lists also becomes obvious (the groups are together at the top but the separate groups are colored orange and blue).

It's worth playing with the tool and exploring who your main connections are and how they've changed over time. 

As of now, the service can't combine the email accounts of multiple people to derive organizational insights and neither, alas, is it open source though it may be in the future.

For more information about the design of the Immersion project and how safe it is to let them have access to your email, see the project's FAQ.

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