As recently as a few weeks ago, “metadata” was an obscure term known mainly to techies and academics. Broadly defined, metadata is data about other data. For the phone company, it might be the time and length of your calls, but not the conversation itself; in the context of e-mail, it means information such as the sender and recipients of a message—basically, everything except what the message actually says.
Then came the revelation that the National Security Agency has been collecting metadata about millions of Americans’ phone calls. Suddenly metadata exploded as a public issue. Is it a harmless way for the government to track dangerous patterns or a tightening net around our lives?
For César Hidalgo, this national conversation about metadata couldn’t come too soon. A professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab, Hidalgo has been obsessed with communications metadata for years. To him, metadata isn’t merely a technical issue, or a political one, but an emotional one—a cloud of knowledge about your behavior that, once you confront it, can literally change your life.
To make metadata more visceral, he and a group of graduate students are launching a new online project to help people visualize their own metadata, or at least one small corner of it. The program, called “Immersion,” asks users for their Gmail address and password; it then scans every e-mail in their accounts and scrapes the metadata to create a portrait of their personal network. With the circles and lines of a network diagram, it highlights the 100 people with whom you’ve communicated most, and shows how closely they’re connected to you and how thickly interconnected with one another in your mailbox. Unlike Google, or the NSA, the project also offers an instant deletion option: Remove your name, and it erases your metadata.
The project has already been running in beta form in the Media Lab lobby, and about 500 people have run their networks. Some people have one key person in their inbox, creating a huge circle like the star in a solar system; some people have what Hidalgo calls “the George Costanza”— two distinct clusters of contacts that rarely interact (“Worlds are colliding! George is getting upset!”); and so on. The images are abstract, but once you get a handle on what they mean, it’s eye-opening to see the topography of your personal web.
You have reached the limit of 5 free articles in a month
Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.
- High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
- Convenient access across all of your devices
- Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
- Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
- Less than 25¢ a week