Amy Martin – California College of the Arts
Simple Memory visualizes personal relationships within email. Using a 4.5 gb Gmail archive, this prototype shows the top ten recipients each year from 2004 to 2010. In addition to representing the natural ebb & flow of relationships, it also shows how data can create understanding and evoke emotion.
Amy Martin – California College of the Arts
Jan Moorman: Can't interactive pieces be art? This piece presents a hidden need, making sense of your past, in a compelling visual manner. Jon Kolko: On the surface, this is a 'neat visualization', but if you examine the number of variables she's tracking at once, you realize there's a depth to the experimentation.
1. Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the challenge posed to you? Did it get you excited and why?
This piece is part of a series of explorations for my thesis work focusing on new ways to see email. Although I experimented with many different ways to display email, over time I became more and more interested in seeing what is underneath email and how that might be brought to the surface. Through a few rounds of primary research and copious amounts of secondary research it became obvious to me that one neglected area of email development was that of the personal inbox. People cared most about email as a way to connect with each other and with friends and family but there hasn’t been much of a way to see that. Email can be thought of as an environment for exploration. With Simple Memory I sought to demonstrate that the information about ourselves contained as metadata within email provides us with a unique way to see our relationships change over time.
2. What point of view did you bring to the challenge? Was there anything additional that you wanted to achieve with this project or bring to this project that was not part of the original brief?
As I was working on my set of explorations, I realized that although I was finding new ways to display email, I wasn’t entirely discovering new ways to understand it. Over and over again throughout my research and throughout my own interactions via email, I was struck with how personal it can be; how it’s changed as a medium over time; how I used to write scrawling email letters describing in astonishing detail the misery and ecstasy of being a 20-something with a tech job and it occurred to me that my grad work was missing emotion. It was missing nostalgia. Email is full of both.
With this piece, I hoped to demonstrate the way people move in and out of our lives on a regular basis. We gain people and lose people and none of it is insignificant. It just is. I hoped by showing people walking towards and away from the fourth wall of the screen, that I could use this piece of software to evoke a deeper understanding of that interaction.
3. When designing this project, whose interests did you consider? (Discuss various stakeholders, audiences, retailing, manufacturing, assembly, distribution, etc., for example.)
The primary audience for this piece would be anyone with any kind of interest in self evaluation. There is a growing field of interest in the quantified self and with the popularity of well known work like the Feltron Annual Report and academic work from Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, we're seeing a huge increase in people looking for new ways to understand large data sets. Email might be a new place for nostalgia and I'd like to support anyone who is interested in examining themselves in this way.
4. Describe the rigor that informed your design. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) If this was a strictly research or strategy project, please provide more detail here.
In addition to the larger amount of research done for my thesis (including surveys, home interviews, personal research and extensive reading of academic materials), the technology involved in creating this program was extensive and varied. From a technical perspective, I had to create a program that would read an email archive, select the most frequent recipients in that archive, classify them and then animated a figure over time that matched the numerical values of number of emails sent in that month. I researched everything from traditional web scrapers, downloading an entire email account to a text file and a myriad of other ways of getting to the raw data. In the end, I ended up reverse-engineering an existing program to get to the raw data.
5. What is the social value of your design? (Gladdening, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, labor-mindful, environmental, cultural, etc.) How does it earn its keep in the world?
Simple Memory visually and viscerally depicts a richer world than the one we see in a basic inbox. Although we're not reading individual emails, at this birds-eye view, it's not the individual letters that matter, but the people whom we are writing to. I personally believe that technology can generate replaceable people and Simple Memory forces the user to see whom they may have left behind, or who might have left them behind.
6. If you could have done one thing differently with the project, what would you have changed?
I would have liked to tighten up the technology. Reverse-engineering other's work to get to the raw data is not a good solution for building a strong data set. I also would have liked to work on the animations more such that the interactive version was a little smoother. Finally, although the final product was a working prototype, it might be nice to take this to an open website someday.