Feelings 2.0

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Researchers reach out and touch the blogosphere

Women feel ugly more often than men, but they feel sexy more often, too. People talk to the sun when it emerges from the clouds. The older people get, the happier they become. Feelings of hope spiked the night Barack Obama was elected, and the world has felt more optimistic ever since.

These are among the interior glimpses offered in the new book "We Feel Fine," the culmination of a five-year online project whose creators consider it a work of art, social-science experiment and software program rolled into one.

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Women feel ugly more often than men, but they feel sexy more often, too. People talk to the sun when it emerges from the clouds. The older people get, the happier they become. Feelings of hope spiked the night Barack Obama was elected, and the world has felt more optimistic ever since.

These are among the interior glimpses offered in the new book "We Feel Fine," the culmination of a five-year online project whose creators consider it a work of art, social-science experiment and software program rolled into one.

Based on a pool of 12 million statements of emotion culled from real people's blogs, the book captures the experience of being human in an online world of increasingly bared souls.

"Once people get to blogging, they're very honest. They use it as a diary," says Sep Kamvar, a professor in computational mathematics at Stanford University and co-author of "We Feel Fine."

"The thing people know best is themselves, and that is what people tend to write about on blogs, so they have a lot to offer."

The book and its real-time online iteration are based on a computer program Kamvar and his co-author Jonathan Harris built, a program that crawls English-language blogs every day looking for sentences containing the phrases "I feel" or "I am feeling."

The program collects 10,000 of these a day, and by cross-referencing information such as each blogger's sex, age and location and the weather on the day they posted, "We Feel Fine" offers insights, such as the most common emotions of teenagers (angst, awkwardness, restlessness) or how people feel when it snows (cold, peaceful, excited).

The book includes chapters detailing the emotional contours of women, men and people of different age groups, snapshots of 50 of the most common feelings and how people feel on different holidays and in various weather conditions, along with "montages" pairing a single emotional sentence with a photo from the blog entry.

"The types of things that really stuck out for us were some of the emotions in the individual montages, the striking beauty of a simple emotion in a sentence," Kamvar says. "You see a young girl who says, 'I feel better starving than I do eating' and a 92-year-old man who's pictured in a hospital bed and he has a smile on his face and it says, 'I feel loved.'"

The "unofficial mascot" of the project is one of the first montages they created, with the words "I feel so much of my dad alive in me that there isn't even room for me" superimposed on a faded snapshot of a curly haired little girl in her father's arms on a beach. The Illinois author of that sentence was one of 1,900 bloggers Kamvar and Harris contacted for the book to provide background context on their blog entries and brief updates on how they've fared since.

A father in Britain writes about his adoration of his three-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy, and grieving for the life she otherwise might have had. A 19-year-old and his mother mend their strained relationship through his blog entries and her responses in the comments section. On her 49th birthday, a woman writes about gratitude for family and friends and feeling excited about the future again, after her husband of two decades left her for one of her friends.

The idea for "We Feel Fine" was sparked around 2004, Kamvar says, when he and Harris noticed the Internet was transforming from a utilitarian, information-heavy environment to a more intimate, emotional space as blogging took off and people exposed more of their personal lives. After poring over a series of blog entries one day, they wrote a computer script to capture the emotional statements, he says, and the raw feeling that flowed out stopped them in their tracks.

"Once we saw the data scrolling across our screens, we knew we had to do something more with it because the data itself was so beautiful. It was both very universal and very personal," he says. "We felt a strong bond with those emotions. It felt like looking in a mirror."

The title "We Feel Fine" refers to the sense of "this too shall pass" that comes from looking at these intense feelings and realizing they're constantly in flux, Kamvar says.

The book suggests that people become happier as they get older - a finding that's mirrored in traditional psychological research - with expressions of happiness increasing and anger, sadness and distress declining as the years go by. And the definition of happiness changes as we age: for the young, happiness is linked with excitement, Kamvar says, but as people age, being happy means feeling peaceful.

The social side of the Internet has "grown exponentially" since they started crawling blogs five years ago, Kamvar says, and as more and more people chronicle their lives online, bloggers are an increasingly accurate reflection of society as a whole. For all the differences in gender, age or occasion highlighted by "We Feel Fine," the biggest revelation has been the "common humanity" of people's emotional lives, Kamvar says.

"Overall, people are much more similar than they are different," he says. "When we are in times of great joy and great despair, those will pass and it's a whole mosaic of emotions that we feel that's beautiful."




Let's talk about our feelings

Emotional glimpses gleaned from "We Feel Fine"
The authors created approval ratings for public figures by searching for emotions associated with various celebrities and dividing them into positive or negative feelings. Oprah Winfrey sat at 53 per cent approval in January 2009, Tom Cruise at 26 per cent and George W. Bush at 18 per cent. Michael Jackson's 55 per cent approval rating shot up to 91 per cent after his death. "Stephen Colbert had the highest approval rating overall, except for Harry Potter and the Dalai Lama," co-author Sep Kamvar says. Other details found in "We Feels Fine":
Universally, "better" is the most common feeling, followed by "bad," "good" and "guilty;"
Anxiety, shyness, fear and anger decrease with age;
Women express more negativity than men, and men express more positivity than women. Women express more love, affection and warmth than men, and also more sadness, fear, anxiety, hurt and shame. Men express more loneliness, pride, confidence, guilt and excitement;
People most often describe their hearts as "broken," their heads as "spinning," and their stomachs as "queasy;"
Between 2005 and 2009, people appeared to be getting happier on average, leaving the authors puzzling over why. They eventually realized that more older people were joining the blogging fray and boosting the collective mood because happiness increases with age;
In the summertime, the world looks more surly, which seems counterintuitive, given how cheery people feel in sunny weather. The researchers' reason? Teenagers feel negative emotions more keenly and have more time to blog while school's out;
On weekends, people feel lonelier, and at night they feel sadder.

Organizations: Stanford University

Geographic location: Illinois, Britain

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