The end of the world as we know it

One of the provocative unintended consequences of putting words on the Web is having them recycled. As one who isn’t overly possessive of my own ideas, I’m still intrigued by any reaction to them. Committing words to text subjects them to analysis, and that includes statistical interpretation.

A professor of mine once described how she conducted a statistical analysis of the grammatical structure of a work of literature. It struck me as a particularly sterile and unimaginative way of examining a story, which, as it unfortunately turned out, was also the way she interpreted The Guest for her students’ benefit.

Statistics and the Web are natural companions. Some argue that literature and the Web are not, but I, who read many more book reviews online than I ever would in print, wholeheartedly disagree. I like having such easy access to so many people’s words.

My friend Dominic Celio told me of a website that captures specific phrases from blogs, categorizes them, and plots them. It’s called We Feel Fine. “Have you seen it?” he asked. “It takes a little exploring to get used to it, but I think it is a great idea.”

wefeelfine

We Feel Fine’s interfaces are beautifully representative of the individuality it examines. The site’s creators, Jonathan Harris and Sepandar Kamvar, refer to the process as “harvesting human feelings from a large number of weblogs.” The statistics generated don’t seem as objective and impersonal as they might on paper. Still, it’s more than a little overwhelming to be confronted with the data and the various ways it can be sorted.

I shrink from the features that permit me to sort and categorize the emotions accumulated in We Feel Fine’s database. The numbers are too impersonal. Instead, I think about a young man near Dominic’s age in Buenos Aires who wrote these captured words:

i listened to nightwish i danced tango with my friends who have just married i arranged to play tennis next thursday so i feel better now however i know there are things i have to solve to repair the hurt in my heart

Personality and usability

group Masha Danilova
Photo courtesy of Masha Danilova

I love to categorize. It’s arguably not a good habit, but it makes me think I understand more than I do. Groping around on the increasingly interactive Web, I keep bumping into two types of users. People who love to explore, are fascinated by variety, and don’t care to be limited by anything remotely proprietary or closed are also the people who resist hierarchies and confinement. On the other hand, those who are comforted by rituals and familiarity are inclined to congregate and identify themselves as groups, which can seem quaint or exclusive to outsiders.

When I’m required to register on a site, it feels like the first step toward joining a group, which is a bit of a deterrent for me. Groups sometimes employ unwritten protocols or use imposing jargon to deflect casual participation. Once accepted as a member, a person can feel protected or even privileged. It’s an adaptive strategy, but it can also tend to promote hostility toward non-members.

Avoiding groups is a challenge. Those who try may gain breadth of knowledge at the expense of finesse. They may discover new things more readily and reject what they see as arbitrary cultural barriers. They aren’t necessarily wiser or happier, just different.

People choose how to spend their time, online or offline, according to their personality types. I haven’t read any new research indicating a unilateral personality type is evolving.

Variations are clearly still useful.