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Personal visualisations of e-mail archives

Yesterday, taking a break from writing I was reading a paper about effects of visualising e-mail archives, Digital artifacts for remembering and storytelling: PostHistory and Social Network Fragments by Fernanda Viégas, danah boyd, David H. Nguyen, Jeffrey Potter, Judith Donath (try this or this if you don’t have IEEE access).

As part of a long-term investigation into visualizing email, we have created two visualizations of email archives. One highlights social networks while the other depicts the temporal rhythms of interactions with individuals. While interviewing users of these systems, it became clear that the applications triggered recall of many personal events. One of the most striking and not entirely expected outcomes was that the visualizations motivated retelling stories from the users’ pasts to others. In this paper, we discuss the motivation and design of these projects and analyze their use as catalysts for personal narrative and recall.

Things to remember:

Example of SNA on e-mail data aimed to support individual and not corporate decision-makers. This makes me thinking about the potential “market” for tools aggregating and visualising data: may be they are more likely to be used by individuals to make sense of their own data, then by “someone” who wants to get a picture of what’s going on in a company (example: my struggle to choose between liveTopics and k-collector). People are selfish: I care more about my own archives than about my company’s 🙂

Inside the article there are some strong quotes on our dependence on external objects to think and to remember. I should expand on it one day, this is something that connects information and knowledge and explains why personal information management skills are important for a knowledge worker.

How much could be extracted only from e-mail headers, without any content analysis.

User reactions on interacting with systems visualising their e-mail archives:

  • recalling stories associated with patterns in e-mail change and being eager to share them with others (“Given the opportunity to gain meaningfull access to date about oneself, people want to explore it and then share it with others” p.9)
  • discoveries about oneself: e-mail use patterns, forgotten friends, connections between people, reflecting on relations

The most interesting finding in the paper is the fact that the users feel that visualisations themselves do not reveal stories behind them:

Some of the ways in which our users interacted with the visualizations are reminiscent of how people relate to photographs. People return to their photos to reflect on past experiences as well as to share aspects of their lives with others. Photographs themselves convey limited slices of the events they represent, but their presence allows the owner to convey as much or as little as they want in sharing the event represented. Although our stories are as deeply embedded in our email as they are in our photos, we rarely have access to any sort of “snapshot” of our email so as to have these deep reflections and storytelling opportunities. The higher-level view of our digital experiences is buried deep within the actual data. When users in our case studies began storytelling around the visualizations, we realized that these provided a missing link; they created a legible and accessible view for sharing and reflecting upon our digital experiences, without revealing too much. (p. 8)

Archived version of this entry is available at http://blog.mathemagenic.com/2004/03/01.html#a1104; comments are here.

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