Mirror, Mirror, on the Screen

NEW YORK – Suppose a group of workers frequently communicate among themselves, and then suddenly one of them gets left off all the “copy-tos.”  “It could be that they’re planning a surprise birthday party,” says Elizabeth Charnock, whose company, Cataphora, analyzes e-mail traffic and content as well as other documents, primarily for clients involved in litigation and crime detection. “It’s more likely that they’re planning to engage in fraud and they know this one person won't go along with it.”

“All abnormal behavior may not be bad,” says Charnock, “but virtually all really bad behavior is abnormal. From years of analyzing the abnormal, I’ve developed a keen appreciation for the myriad peccadilloes that are quite normal: the dull co-worker whom others scheme to avoid, the eleventh-hour passing of the buck, the ex you promised to ‘stay friends’ with but never wrote to again, the small but telling things that really get under your skin.”

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Now she, and Cataphora, are applying those same analytics to a different market: people who want to analyze their own e-mail correspondence (and eventually other content) to see a reflection of their interactions with others. Call it a visualization of your social graph in action.

With Cataphora’s new software tool called Digital Mirror, you can see the top asymmetries in your own relationships: whom you respond to before others versus whom you postpone, reschedule, or otherwise delay – and who does the same to you. To the extent that you are cc’ed, you can also see patterns among your friends or colleagues: Which topics provoke huge amounts of stress or argument? Which are dismissed with little comment?

The software works by analyzing not just the “shape” of a conversation – who writes to whom, who answers, and when – but also the content. What are the key words? And what – judging by everything from words such as “must” or “immediately” to slang or profanity, to “softeners” such as “if you don't mind” and “please,” and text written in ALL CAPS – is the tone?

Obviously, some cultures have their own jargon and tone, so Digital Mirror looks at the relative as well as absolute frequency of the values that it measures. Is Juan obsequiously polite to Alice, but abrupt to Marvin? Does he respond promptly to Teresa, but ignore Anatoly?

The sofware offers nine visualizations that reflect behavior and trends over time, including quality time (a pie chart of whom you spend time with online and offline), pecking order (illustrated with chickens!), blow-off scorecard (relationship asymmetry), and temperature gauge.

The result is a startlingly clear look at what is going on in a circle of people: who defers to whom, who takes charge, who passes the buck.

Digital Mirror – along with a book written by Charnock called E-Habits, which serves as a kind of extended documentation – can be used for self-analysis or analysis of the local ecosystem. The program is targeted at individuals, but a company systems administrator or human-resources manager could use it to identify company- or group-wide patterns – though to do so without informing employees that their mail is being monitored would be illegal in Europe and bad practice at best in the United States. 

Of course, transparency is unsettling – whether it’s seeing your own wrinkles in the mirror, or confirming unpleasant aspects of how others treat you. Transparency is unambiguously good for companies and for governments; by and large they don’t welcome it, but it makes them more accountable to their constituents and to society.

Personal transparency and accountability, on the other hand, are harder, owing both to a lack of visibility and to people’s reluctance to confront one another – or themselves. Once you see your own digital reflection, will you improve your behavior? (Surely you are not already perfect?)

Though personal transparency is uncomfortable, wouldn’t you rather answer to a piece of software than confront your friends’ candor face-to-face? Conversely, if someone at work is bothering you, you don’t need to tell them directly; you can just e-mail them a link to Digital Mirror (just like the old trick of dropping a can of deodorant on a co-worker’s desk – difficult but sometimes necessary).

Indeed, I suspect that the people who need Digital Mirror the most are the ones who will recognize that need the least. Still, it may help the semi-self-aware to improve their personal relations – or at least to be more aware of the trade-offs they make when they favor one friend or colleague over another.

According to Charnock, “People believe that the digital world largely masks their preferences for different individuals. For example, in a real-world office, you can see who goes out to lunch together or gossips at the water cooler, who has a line in front of their door, and so on. Not only are many of the equivalent online activities harder to see or quantify, but things like Facebook encourage you to ‘friend’ everyone….Everyone is more popular, more intelligent, and better looking than average. Digital Mirror does the reverse. It is like the difference between a bar or club where the lights are low, and a good make-up mirror.”

This all reflects a trend toward greater clarity in our relations. Facebook and other social tools operate under the covers: Facebook notices which friends you interact with and whose photos you comment on in order to select the items in your NewsFeed or the ads you see. But Facebook does not show that information to you. Digital Mirror does.

Within a few years, this kind of transparency will probably be commonplace, both from Facebook and from ad networks and behavioral targeters trying to derive information about your likely purchases. But right now, only Digital Mirror is one of the few to give you the ability to do the same for yourself.