Metadata is data about other data—basically, everything except the actual content of your phone call or email.
For César Hidalgo, the 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.