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Digital Artifacts for Remembering and Storytelling:

PostHistory and Social Network Fragments


Fernanda B. Viégas1 danah boyd2 David H. Nguyen3
fviegas@media.mit.edu dmb@sims.berkeley.edu dnguyen@erstwhile.org
Jeffrey Potter4 Judith Donath1
jeff@buddygraph.org judith@media.mit.edu
1 2 3 4
MIT Media Laboratory University of California, Berkeley – SIMS College of Computing Atof, Inc.
20 Ames Street 102 South Hall Georgia Tech Box 398035
Cambridge, MA Berkeley, CA Atlanta, GA Cambridge, MA
02138 USA 94720 USA 30332-0280 USA 02139 USA

Abstract As our lives and experiences become more digital,


the records of our experiences become less tangible.
As part of a long-term investigation into visualizing Yet, our appreciation for social artifacts does not
email, we have created two visualizations of email diminish. Even online, people want access to the kinds
archives. One highlights social networks while the of tools that provide snapshots of their social existence.
other depicts the temporal rhythms of interactions with Web traffic monitors allow people to see patterns in
individuals. While interviewing users of these systems, their hits and visitors, while new social technologies,
it became clear that the applications triggered recall of such as blogs and Friendster.com allow people to
many personal events. One of the most striking and not articulate and share their social networks. The
entirely expected outcomes was that the visualizations popularity of these sites suggests that people find tools
motivated retelling stories from the users’ pasts to that provide them with slices of their social experiences
others. In this paper, we discuss the motivation and online useful and desirable, even if only out of passing
design of these projects and analyze their use as curiosity.
catalysts for personal narrative and recall. While some sites generate artifacts about people’s
public digital experiences, little has been done
1. Introduction concerning one’s more private digital activities. Yet,
private venues such as email and instant messaging
Our dependence on objects is not only physical but also, capture some of the most meaningful social interactions
more important, psychological. Most of the things we that people have online every day. The quantity of data
make these days do not make life better in any material alone is massive, with the average user receiving and
sense but instead serve to stabilize and order the mind. sending approximately 29 messages per day (in 2001)
– Csikszentmihalyi [6: 22] [14]. Although almost all online users participate in
email [15], most of the records of these social
It has been argued that objects are essential for interactions are lost or cluttered. As individual
maintaining a coherent sense of self, as they have the messages are usually the only artifact of most email
ability to embody goals and make skills manifest and conversations, users have no way of seeing any of the
shape the identity of their users [5][6][16]. When higher level patterns of the social interactions in which
sharing our stories, we often use artifacts as props to they participate. This is problematic because people’s
relay our experiences. Photographs and the mental model of email exchanges does not correspond
conversational reminiscing they provide generate to unrelated individual messages [7].
situations where personal identities and social In this paper, we present two projects that provide
relationships can be articulated and shared [11][20]. an alternative approach to accessing and deriving
Also, by associating previous experiences with an meaning from email archives. PostHistory and Social
object, the object becomes infused with personal Network Fragments are visualization tools that allow
meaning and, therefore, valuable both as a souvenir and users to access the higher-level patterns of one’s email
as a tangible marker of past times and places. habits. Although initially intended as tools for
uncovering social patterns in email archives, evaluation, the common goal is to maximize the
PostHistory and Social Network Fragments turned out analyst’s ability to comprehend other people’s
to be useful for self-reflection. Moreover, users felt behavior. The strength of a visualization tool is
compelled to tell stories around the data they saw in normally evaluated via its effectiveness as a device for
their visualizations and, in some cases, users became information retrieval. Alternatively, we argue that the
eager to share these visualizations with friends. value of our approach lies in providing users with the
We begin by discussing our intentions in designing means to explore personal self-awareness through the
these systems and then briefly outline their exploration of their data patterns on the screen.
implementation. We then analyze users’ reactions to
the visualizations of their data. We conclude this paper 2.2 Visualize what?
with a discussion about the importance of Both PostHistory and Social Network Fragments
understanding email archives not only as raw data focus on two major dimensions of email archives:
repositories but also as powerful objects with which to people and time. Even though both visualizations
think about issues of identity and memory. reveal the email social landscape of the user at different
points in time, they do so in very different ways.
2. Intentions PostHistory focuses on the social world of dyadic
Patterns in email usage are often inaccessible to email relationships whereas Social Network Fragments
users because the available archives provide little explores the groupings of people that emerge within a
descriptive detail. As such, we set out to uncover three person’s social network as seen through email
dimensions of email patterns: 1) social networks, 2) exchanges. Both systems have mechanisms to show
email exchange rhythms, and 3) the role of time in how social worlds evolve over time. Because of their
these patterns. distinct approaches to email, these visualizations
In presenting email data, we sought a user-centric generate different insights, which frequently
approach, focused on providing the user with lasting complement one another. In this section, we discuss the
impressions about their social interactions in email. We significance of the dimensions we chose to visualize in
wanted to uncover the irregularities that the user would each of the systems.
recognize: vacation habits and surprising connections
between clusters of friends, for instance. 2.1.1 Social Landscapes
In addressing these questions, we analyzed the In sociology, one of the most fundamental and yet
social patterns that can be derived from the FROM, elusive concepts is that of the “group.” A special class
TO, CC, SUBJECT, and DATE headers present in both of human grouping is the one termed “dyadic,” which
messages sent to and those received by the user. We refers to a group of two people. The reason this group
tracked mail traffic as opposed to mail content. As we is in its own category is that only dyadic relationships
discuss later, this approach has both merits and serious have no sense of collectivity. In all other groups, duties
limitations. and responsibilities can be delegated whereas in the
dyad, each participant is immediately and directly
2.1 Why visualize? responsible for any communal action [17]. This
Previous work on understanding online social category of human relationship permeates personal
interaction has shown that visualization techniques are spaces, including that of email where the majority of
important aids in helping users and researchers conversations are only a few messages long and usually
understand social and conversational patterns in other include only two people [10]. PostHistory focuses on
online interactions [3][9][13][18]. Yet, unlike the this specific aspect of the user’s social world: the users’
related work in this area, our design approach is purely direct interactions with each of the contacts in their
centered on the owner of the email account. Rather email world.
than focusing on how researchers or the public could In contrast to the dyadic focus of PostHistory,
understand an individual’s behavior, we designed and Social Network Fragments reveals a world of social
developed a set of systems that emphasize the social collectivities. People participate in a variety of social
data relevant to the individual whose email archive is groups, such as those ranging from gatherings of work
being visualized. colleagues to college pals to extended families. By
A user-centric, impressionistic visualization portraying the structure of an individual’s social
approach diverges from the traditional social network and the known connections between one’s
visualization approaches. Because the majority of relations, Social Network Fragments unveils the
visualizations are intended for external analysis and disparate nature of one’s social clusters. Such
clustering is indicative of how one segments the facets of people with whom ego corresponds? How big/small
of one’s identity depending on social context [4]. is this core? Does the constitution of this core of people
change over time?)
2.1.2 Time and Change
Time is a major structural factor in our lives. We 3.1 Implementation
pace ourselves by the hour, sometimes by the minute. In order to reveal the temporal and social
Not only does time structure our lives, it instills our dimensions mentioned above, PostHistory pre-
daily activities with meaningful rhythms. As aggregates data on the following dimensions:
anthropologists have long recognized, human practices 1) Daily email averages (i.e. how many messages a user
are defined by the fact that their temporal structure, sends and receives per day and on average?)
direction, and rhythms are constitutive of their meaning 2) Daily "quality" of emails (i.e. on a given day, are
[2]. The same is true of our computer-mediated most of the messages sent directly to the owner of
interactions: they are temporally structured and, as such, the account, or are they sent to mailing lists to
defined by their tempo. Recent work on email rhythms [1] which the owner subscribes?)
[19] has demonstrated that people are highly sensitive to 3) Frequency of email exchanges with contacts (i.e.
the rhythms of email exchange, as they are quite has “Mary” exchanged more/less email with me
sophisticated and diligent in the coordination between today than usual?)
receiving and sending messages. 4) Comparative frequency of email exchanges with
PostHistory grounds its entire visualization scheme contacts (i.e. how does my email exchange with
in the notion of time, expressing long-term email “Mary” compare to the rest of my email activity
exchange rhythms within an interface that is structured with other contacts in my social network?)
through a calendar. The system visualizes the amount
of email exchanged over time with each person the user 3.2 Interface
knows, revealing large concentrations of interaction The PostHistory interface is divided into two main
during certain periods in contrast to times when almost panels: the calendar panel on the left, which shows the
no email was exchanged. The application also intensity of email exchanges over time, and the
visualizes how changing rhythms of email exchange “contacts” panel on the right, which shows the names
affect the social landscape of the user. of the people with whom ego has exchanged email
Social Network Fragments uses time to emphasize [Fig. 1].
how connections between one’s correspondents emerge The calendar panel displays email activity on a daily
and dissolve. Thus, by using the system, users can basis. Each square represents a single day and each row
grasp the evolution of one’s social clusters. By of squares represents a week’s worth of email activity.
presenting one’s relationships and social network over Each week row starts on Monday and ends on Sunday
time, the system also allows users to recognize when so that both week and weekend activities can be seen as
the context of a given relationship changed (i.e. when a contrasting, adjacent visual units. Month names are
work colleague became connected with one’s social shown on the right of week rows and each day’s
community). number is displayed above the day’s colored square.
PostHistory shows an entire calendar year at any given
3. PostHistory time, and the number of the year is shown at the
In PostHistory, we were mainly interested in two bottom.
dimensions of email: 1) time and 2) dyadic The size of each square represents the quantity of
relationships with ego (the owner of the email account). email received on that day. PostHistory determines the
By visualizing email activity along these two axes, we average number of emails a person receives on a given
hoped to highlight interesting patterns that reflect the day and uses this average to determine the size of each
changes in interaction between ego and their contacts daily square. Days with less than average numbers of
over time such as: message are portrayed as small squares, while heavy
1) How does the frequency of email exchange differ from email traffic days are shown through large squares.
one dyadic relationship to the next? Each square is centralized inside its grid cell and, as
2) What are the rhythms of email exchange in the different squares get bigger or smaller – in a pattern reminiscent
relationships? of halftone – the overall density pattern they create is
3) What does the entire landscape of egocentric, dyadic readily perceived as the gradation of intensity in email
ties looks like? How does it evolve over time? exchanges over time.
4) Is there a sense of periphery x centrality in the
distribution of these dyadic ties? (i.e. What is the core
Fig 1. PostHistory interface with calendar panel on the left and Fig 2. PostHistory interface with the circular mode of the
contacts panel on the right. A contact name has been highlighted contacts panel on the right
and the corresponding emails sent by this person have been
highlighted in yellow on the calendar pane alphabetical order or by the number of emails people
have sent to ego.
The second dimension used in the calendar
visualization is color, which represents how “personal” 3.3 Interaction
or “directed” to the user the messages have been on Interaction with the PostHistory interface causes
that particular day. Messages where the only recipient temporal patterns of email exchange to be highlighted.
is the user get tagged as “highly directed.” Messages When the user clicks on a specific day on the calendar,
where the user is one of several recipients – i.e. their the names of people who have sent email to ego on that
email address appears in conjunction with other email day get highlighted on the contacts panel.
addresses – get tagged as “somewhat directed.” Finally, After the user clicks on the name of a person on the
messages where the user’s email address does not contacts panel, yellow squares are displayed on top of
appear – for instance, messages sent to mailing lists to each day in the calendar panel that the person has sent
which the user subscribes – get tagged as “not directed a message to ego. Each yellow square represents a
at all.” PostHistory computes the “directedness” message sent to ego by that person. The accumulation
average of a day based on the rating of all messages on of yellow squares on the calendar panel creates a visual
that day. The brighter the color of a given day, the pattern that highlights times when email exchange was
more directed that day has been. intense and contrasts times when the exchange between
The “contacts” panel on the right displays the names of the two people was at its lowest levels.
the people who have sent messages to the user up to that Finally, users can animate the passage of time in
point in time (i.e. the disposition of names is driven by the PostHistory to observe the changes in the landscape of
calendar panel). There are three visualization modes in the names displayed in the contacts panel. Underneath the
contacts panel: vertical [Fig. 1], circular [Fig. 2], and vertical and circular modes of the contacts panel, there
alphabetical. are “play” and “pause” buttons that allows the user to
The vertical mode of the contacts panel displays animate the passage of time. In the time animation,
ego’s name at the top of the panel; other people’s each day gets momentarily highlighted, from the start
names are placed below it, such that the most frequent of the chosen year to its end. Over the course of time,
contacts are visually closest to ego. The circular mode new names appear on the right panel indicating the
works is similar to the typical circular egocentric beginning of email exchange with a new person. In the
diagrams first devised by sociologists looking at social vertical mode of the contact panel, a contact’s name can
networks [21]: ego’s name is displayed in the center of move upwards – closer to ego – to reflect periods of more
the diagram and contacts’ names surround it. The intensive email exchanges. If ego starts to work on a
closer someone’s name is to the center of the diagram, project with “Maria,” her name might move up a couple of
the more email messages this person has exchanged levels very quickly during the time of the project and then
with ego. The alphabetical mode presents a table of subside again when the project is over. This creates a
contacts’ names that can be sorted either by series of rhythms on the contacts panel – names moving
Fig 3. In Social Network Fragments, the social network
Fig 4. Zooming into the social network panel reveals the
panel is on the left while the history panel is on the right.
structure and the people who operate as bridges.

up, staying stationary, moving down – that reflect the - Weak awareness ties. If B and C both receive a
ebb and flow of ego’s evolving email relationships. message from A, B and C are ‘weakly aware’ of each other.
- List awareness ties. If B receives a message from A
4. Social Network Fragments through a listserv, B is ‘listserv aware’ of A.
Social Network Fragments reveals the faceted - Trusted ties. If A sends a message to B and blind
contexts that people systematically create. To do so, carbon copies (BCC’s) D, A ‘knows’ and ‘trusts’ D.
the system derives a graph of social relationships by (We assume this because D has the ability to respond
analyzing the recipients of emails using header data. and reveal that A included D without B’s awareness.)
Using this information, Social Network Fragments These relationship rules are used to analyze a user’s
addresses the following questions: email spool. In order to avoid duplication of individuals,
1) What is the visual structure of one’s social network? we collapse multiple email addresses based on a set of
2) How do people segment their network into smaller rules given to us by the user.
clusters? For each message, we evaluate the role of ego in a
3) When clusters form, are they connected via a common given message based on the email address used (i.e. work
role or definable community - i.e. might you see clusters
email, personal email, school email). If we know the role
of extended family separated from college friends?
4) Are there specific individuals that bridge disparate used in that email, we code the connections made during
clusters of people together? that message accordingly. The user may also specify
5) How does one’s structure evolve over time? Do certain known roles with specific people or groups. The manual
roles or communities of people dominate at different and systematically calculated roles are used to determine
times? the color of each message and connection.
To address these questions, we developed a Relationship ties are stored in a matrix where each
language for discussing email connections and a pairing is given a different weight for each time slices.
method for articulating which people are associated The system pre-defines 24 time slices per year; each
with ego’s various roles and communities. slice is approximately two weeks. For a given
individual in a given period of time, we know the
4.1 Structure frequency of connections that they have to every other
In order to code email relationships, we defined five individual in the system along the aforementioned five
different types of relationship ties: types of ties. We also know the various role-based
- Knowledge ties. If A sends a message to B, A relationships that the individual has to the user in each
‘knows’ B. (We do not assume that B knows A; we message. In order to present the information, we first
also do not assume that A knows B if the message went collapse this data into one tie strength per connection
through a listserv.) per time slice. We work directly with the user to
- Awareness ties. If B receives a message from A determine the most appropriate weighting system for
that B is ‘aware’ of A. each of the five types of ties, determining how likely
each type is to indicate a strong connection. Thus, if 5. Small Evaluation: case studies
our user did not use BCCs to indicate trust, the weight While developing PostHistory and Social Network
of trust ties in the system would be weaker than if they Fragments, we ran a small ethnographic evaluation with
had. In addition, we determine the average role ten users, including some of the systems’ developers. All
between each person and ego, generating one color role ten people had their own email data visualized. Out of
per time period. Thus, if red indicates work relations the test users, two became our case studies because they
and yellow indicates personal ones and messages are provided us with extensive personal email archives that
exchanged that are equally personal and work-related, spanned five years (from 1997 to 2002).
the name will be colored yellow for that time slice. The evaluation users were 20-something students and
The matrix of connections is then used as input for a young professionals. Seven of the ten were American
spring system algorithm, which attempts to maximize and six of the ten were female. All users had over five
for ideal positioning of all people on a 2D plane. Those years of experience with email, which they used daily.
with tight bonds are pulled towards one another; those Both people in our case studies had their archives
who do not know each other are repelled. The system visualized by both applications and, as discussed
settles when it minimizes the distance between tightly below, took advantage of this simultaneous access
bonded individuals while maximizing the distance when interacting with the systems. These two users
between unrelated individuals. The graphical layout interacted with the applications at various milestones
determined by the spring system algorithm is the basis during development and thus played with various
for the user interface. renditions of the tools over the period of six months.
Overall, each one had over ten hours of interaction with
4.2 User interface the visualizations. Unlike the users in the case studies,
The user interface for Social Network Fragments is other evaluation users did not have the benefit of
comprised of two different panels: the primary social having their email archives visualized simultaneously
network panel and a history panel [Fig. 3]. Social by the two applications; mostly, they interacted with
Network Fragments can be viewed as an interactive only one of the visualizations. Each one of these users
animation that shows how the data evolves over time; had around two hours of interaction with one of the
each second represents one day in the archive. systems.
The history panel depicts each time slice as a two As we were more interested in getting an
squares. The outer square represents the number of ethnographic understanding of how these visualizations
awareness connections that occur during that time could be used as opposed to performing focused user
period while the inner square indicates the number of tests, we opted not to have any set, directed tasks for
knowledge ties. As the animation moves over time, the users. Users were free to explore the visualizations for
current time slice is highlighted. When users click on a as long and in whatever ways they saw fit.
time square, the animation moves to that point in
history and continues from there. 5.1 Users’ Reactions
The social network panel displays the results of the This section describes common themes that emerged
spring system. Clusters of people are collocated and out of users’ interactions with PostHistory and Social
interlinked. Only people who are actively Network Fragments. We also highlight individual
communicating with ego during a given time slice are responses to the systems and address some of the
shown in this view and thus people come in and out of concerns that emerged.
the image. The stronger an individual is tied to others When looking at Social Network Fragments, most
and to the user, the larger the font size used. Color users first passively observed the visualization animate
represents the primary role of communication between over time, adjusting to the movement of the vast
the individual and ego at that time. constellation of names displayed on the screen. Users
Users can click on an individual’s name and the would then focus on graphically interesting clusters and
history panel will shift to show just that person’s start exploring, usually by zooming in to see the
frequency of connections over the various time slices. various names in a tight group. In PostHistory, as the
Thus, the user can trace the patterns of different people visualization is completely driven by time, there is no
over time. Also, by selecting a region of the network, single “optimal” view, so users would start exploring
one can zoom into the clusters, as seen in [Fig. 4]. This the calendar panel and watch how the names of people
allows for close-up views of the network. would move in the contacts’ panel. Users would then
identify bursts of email exchanges by the way these
people’s names moved upwards in the social landscape
panel. Sudden movements in the contacts panel would relationships that hadn' t been maintained in five years
immediately prompt users to consider the events that by providing a reason to meet in person and get to
caused those bursts to happen. know one another again.”
Users readily utilized the visualizations to revisit As users shared portions of the visualizations with
past experiences and to reflect on their relationships friends, those friends valued the opportunity to learn
with others. Usually, users were excited that they could about the user’s life. The partner of one of our users
recognize almost all the names on the screen. told us “I learned some little things about him that he
Identifiable names, by themselves, evoked memories. had never mentioned before, like the fact that he was in
Because names are presented in clusters in Social a string quartet – suddenly there' s a little cluster of
Network Fragments, users had a group context in names all one color off in the corner: ' Who are they?'I
which to think about their relationships. Often, users ask. 'Oh, that's the string quartet I was in.''You were in
felt compelled to explain what the relationships a string quartet?'”
amongst the people in a cluster meant. This would We were also surprised to find that users felt
almost always motivate the user to reminisce about past comfortable sharing not only the specific portions that
events and share stories that involved one or more of concerned their friends, but also entire visualization
the people in the cluster. Some stories were focused on overviews. There was a sense of sustained privacy even
cluster formation while others focused on the though hundreds of names were being displayed on the
relationships between different people or different screen. “Most people I showed these to seemed to say
clusters. People who bridged multiple clusters intrigued ‘Oh, that's pretty!’ or ‘Wow, pretty cool.’ They could
users and motivated them to explore further. not, I felt, understand the stories behind the images;
Seeing the shapes that described long-term without my explanations it was almost useless.”
interaction patterns on PostHistory was often surprising Another user observed: “Sure, my closest friends could
to users. Having never seen her five years of email tell what those clusters were and why they were so
activity laid out all at once in front of her before, one of significant to me. But very few people had access to all
our users was simply stunned by the fact that the of the different social circles that I knew and
pattern of email exchange had evolved into a clear and maintained.” These testimonials seem to suggest that
consistent rhythm over the years. As she looked at her these visualizations kept just enough of the context
archive on PostHistory, she was surprised to see how needed for memory prompting and storytelling without
different her email behavior was during weekdays as spelling out the details. In other words, these
opposed to weekends. She was also taken aback by the visualizations seem to provide users with a comfortable
number of emails she received everyday that were not balance between private and public boundaries.
directed specifically at her – i.e. emails to mailing lists In PostHistory, users saw the “rise and fall” of many
(or spam). relationships: “I loved to see the pattern of my
To our surprise, we found that the users in our case relationships with various lovers: intense conversation,
studies were frequently eager to share the stories then stability, then slowed down conversation and then
prompted by the visualizations with the people !bam! no conversation (a.k.a. breakup). I saw my
involved. The stories that users conveyed to others and vacation habits, the intense (procrastination) email
the depth of details communicated depended on their during the stressful periods of the school year.” Some
relationship with the person. users would animate the time aspect of PostHistory
In one of our case studies, the user found a self- many times over to see the way the names on the
contained cluster (no links with any of the other contacts panel moved as time progressed. After looking
clusters) and it turned out to be a collective of women at his data on both systems, one of our case study users
that had helped support her in her early years at remarked on the transient nature of his relationships:
university via email. She sent the group a screen shot of “In the broadest way, the visualizations made me very
the cluster as it was displayed in the visualization. “The aware of the ephemeral nature of relationships and
list hadn' t been used in well over two years, but the community […]. Observing how my relationships grew
visualization prompted an impressive walk down and died was fascinating.”
memory lane, as people pointed out specific PostHistory also highlighted the core group of
connections and why they emerged at that time […]. relations and how this core evolved over time. “Seeing
The little slice of history allowed the group to my social network in PostHistory makes me aware of
reconnect by providing the reminder of what had made how many people overall I know, and how few of them
us close in the first place. In a pleasant turn of events, really count. It' s fascinating to see how some of the
that resurgence of connected energy rebuilt stronger names (higher up on the screen) stay around
for a long time, bobbing up and down occasionally; displayed on the screen and the difficulty of reading
how some of them faded away slowly while others them before zooming into specific clusters. They also
crashed instantly.” had a hard time reading the meaning in the history
Social Network Fragments allowed users to reflect panel beyond its use as time slices over years; they did
on qualitative changes of their supportive social world not understand the coloring or the differently sized
over the years. In one of our case studies, a user squares. Users also complained that they did not
reflected on the staggering changes in his social understand the static nature of the people’s geographic
landscape as it evolved from his university years to his location in Social Network Fragments; they wanted
first years as a young professional: “I remember people’s positions to change over time as they
looking at the difference in my social world from participated in different groups. While the coloring was
school, then my first job. It really struck me how much effective for relational purposes, users were confused
my entire landscape changed during these transitions.” about its meaning and accuracy.
In both of our case studies, users made extensive use
of both systems simultaneously, going back and forth 6. Discussion
between them. For example, when users spotted an In developing PostHistory and Social Network
interesting cluster of people in Social Network Fragments, we focused on creating personally informative
Fragments, they would turn to PostHistory to locate tools that provided high-level views of social interaction
the patterns of intensive email exchange that made over time. We realized that our visualizations had a much
those people’s names coalesce into a single cluster. broader appeal. Not only did they allow users to reflect
One of our users was able to trace how she got personally, but they also operated as artifacts for sharing
involved in a legal action concerning a group of people and storytelling. Whereas unanticipated uses for novel
she met over one summer. She first saw the tight cluster applications are not that startling – people often find
of names in Social Network Fragments and turned to surprising social ways of using software [12] – we feel it is
PostHistory to confirm when her exchanges with that important to incorporate both our design intentions and the
group of people had taken place. In such cases, users uses that emerged from users’ interactions with the
repeatedly used one system to confirm and applications into the discussion.
contextualize the other. Some of the ways in which our users interacted with
the visualizations are reminiscent of how people relate
5.2 Concerns to photographs. People return to their photos to reflect
After using PostHistory, some users complained on past experiences as well as to share aspects of their
about the inability to go back into the calendar panel lives with others. Photographs themselves convey
and annotate important dates/events; they felt that after limited slices of the events they represent, but their
they had located meaningful periods of activity, they presence allows the owner to convey as much or as
wanted to highlight those in some way for future little as they want in sharing the event represented.
reference. The vertical mode of the contacts panel was Although our stories are as deeply embedded in our
a lot more legible to users than the circular mode; users email as they are in our photos, we rarely have access
felt that comparisons in the vertical mode were a lot to any sort of “snapshot” of our email so as to have
easier to track than in the circular display. Some users these deep reflections and storytelling opportunities.
wanted to have PostHistory either linked to the actual The higher-level view of our digital experiences is
email messages it represents or have it show the subject buried deep within the actual data. When users in our
lines of the messages being visualized so that people case studies began storytelling around the
could get an idea of the content of the exchanges visualizations, we realized that these provided a
shown on the screen. This reaction suggests that there missing link; they created a legible and accessible view
might be multiple levels at which users are interested in for sharing and reflecting upon our digital experiences,
interacting with these visualizations: the high-level without revealing too much.
patterns of social interaction that evolve over time Since we started working on PostHistory and Social
could serve as a map for accessing “lower-level” Network Fragments, other systems have emerged that
contents of conversations. This possibility implies give different kinds of access to people’s social
multiple levels of privacy and presentation for interactions both online and offline. Of these tools,
visualizations such as these. BuddyZoo most closely resembles our work – the
Users remarked on the overwhelming nature of the system visualizes people’s social networks on instant
Social Network Fragments overview visualization, messaging (IM). Even though the tool is fairly new and
usually mentioning the high number of names its use has been limited to a few college campuses,
students’ reactions so far include gathering in groups because the names on the screen did not tell the
around one terminal to compare their visualization complete story. As one user put it: “They are tools,
results, explaining their visualizations to friends by props, for telling a story, but it requires a storyteller
indicating a cluster of people as being from home, from intimate with what the props are saying to relate
summer camp, etc. [8]. Although IM is considered a events.” If users feel as though the data is publicly
private mode of communication, some students incomprehensible without explanation, the
published their BuddyZoo visualizations on their website. visualizations protect the aspects of the user’s life that
These reactions resonate with what we have observed in are more intimate and allow one to evaluate what to
our own case studies. Given the opportunity to gain share depending on who is getting to see the data.
meaningful access to data about oneself, people want to
explore it and then share it with others. 6.2 Where to go from here
A remarkable outcome of working with both Users’ reactions indicate that visualizations have the
systems presented in this paper is realizing how much potential of transforming email archives into social
meaning can be derived from the structural traces of objects of display that afford multiple levels of privacy.
email archives. Without having looked into what As our users interacted with their datasets in these
people were saying to one another, by simply focusing applications they found no harm in sharing the
on patterns of email traffic, we were able to build two visualizations with others and telling stories about the
visualizations that made people conscious of social relationships they had with the different people
patterns they were not previously aware. For the most displayed on the screen, which suggests a semi-public
part, people were able to look at the patterns in the use of the data. We can envision an even more personal
visualizations and explain the meaning behind the use of these archives if we were to link the
changes they saw over time without having to access visualizations to the actual email content and allow
the content of the individual messages. These results users to delve into their past messages, reading the
indicate that a structural approach to the social patterns conversations they had with people over the years. We
of email exchange is a valuable research endeavor. see these distinct levels of data display as important
next steps in transforming email archives into objects
6.1 Privacy of social display that traverse a range of public and
In designing the visualizations, we gave little private contexts: 1) public display (obfuscated names,
consideration to privacy concerns because our targeted no content available), 2) semi-public display (real
audience was the owner of the email account that was names, no content available), and 3) personal (real
being visualized. As this was personal data, we felt that names and content available).
privacy was not an issue. However, although the user One potential consequence of tailoring visualizations
was part of every email interaction and thus has to the activity of sharing stories and memories with
understandable access to those messages, the data others is the creation of new forms of social capital. By
available in those conversations implicates more than inventing ways in which people can share images of their
just that one individual. In Social Network Fragments email social networks with others, we automatically
in particular, not only is the user’s network easily create a way for people to compare themselves with one
accessible; portions of other people’s social networks another. By visualizing social rhythms of email
are also made explicit by their connections to others in exchange, we transform things that were previously
the visualization. In one of our case studies’ intangible into concrete images that can be displayed,
visualization, we recognized one of our colleagues in compared and judged. This phenomenon is already
the graph. She had only ever briefly met our subject, happening with tools such as BuddyZoo. In a sense, these
but when we presented her with a screenshot in which visualizations might have a broader social effect than our
she was present and linked to other people in a cluster, initial intent of self-reflection.
she was completely taken aback and reacted While much meaning can be derived from the
immediately by asking, “Where did you get that?!?!” structure of email traffic, the content within messages
When presented in an accessible manner, people can provides a richer source of social context. Analysis of
learn a great deal about themselves as well as their the content would allow us to more accurately
friends. Such realizations suggest that one’s personal determine the significance of a relationship.
data is not solely their own, but also offers insights into Meaningful connections are often based more on
one’s acquaintances’ lives. content than frequency; some people send many quick
Part of the reason why users did not seem feel as point-by-point messages or forward articles of interest,
though the visualizations broke their privacy might be while others write long extended conversations that
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