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Volume 45, No. 3
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Search Your Feelings
Professor Sara Sood’s cyberquest for the heart of the blogosphere.

Story by Lori Kido Lopez '06 / Photo by John Lucas

Often banal and sometimes brutal, the blogosphere does have a heart. Computer Science Professor Sara Sood finds blogging’s best lies in the emotional stories—tales of breakups and breakdowns, crushing woes and spectacular joys, stories that resonate with readers on a deep level because we’ve all been there before.

If only they could be found amid the millions upon millions of entries that populate the blogosphere. Sood’s quest is to help people find these gems, and maybe, to teach the computer a thing or two about human emotions.

“What we found was that the stories that rang true to everyone were things like dreams, confessions, nightmares, fights, fears, things like that,” says Sood of the research she began six years ago. Using this information, she began to develop a search engine that seeks out stories that are strongly motivated by one of the six basic emotions—happiness, fear, sadness, surprise, disgust and anger.

This is vastly different from a typical search engine. If you put the words “happy” and “Obama” into Google, the sites that pop up include information about Obama’s White House happy hours and a mix tape called “Obama’s Happy Ending”—neither of which have distinct emotional content. Sood’s goal is to be able to search for content about “Obama” but also to be able to specify that the stories are emotionally “happy”—and actually be able to come up with a list of articles where the writer is feeling joyous about the topic of Obama. These stories might include topics like the euphoria and love surrounding Obama’s family, or excitement toward his message of change.

Finding value in the messy human emotions expressed in blogs may seem an unusual project for a computer scientist to take on, particularly given that Sood only enters the blogosphere for research. She doesn’t read blogs on her own time, and she is too afraid of their public nature to ever write one of her own. “If your work was to read a thousand blogs a day you probably wouldn’t read them at home,” she admits, somewhat sheepishly. Nevertheless, her passion for stories and curiosity about the way they work keeps her coming back to blogs in project after project.

Sood and student researcher Lucy Vasserman ’10 will present a paper on the “Emotional-State Search Engine” at an international conference in May and, by the end of summer, Sood hopes to have the engine up and running for public use. She first began examining blogs after being assigned to create a team of digital improv performers during her doctoral program at Northwestern University—an assignment given to her by a graduate school advisor who himself was an improv comedian.

The task, which she considered “kind of daunting,” led her straight to the emotionally rich database of the blogosphere, where countless stories were just waiting to be discovered. Hidden amongst the thousands of Web sites such as Blogger, Livejournal and Xanga are these sprawling networks mapping the minutiae of one person’s life. Everything from big events, like landing a new job or getting married, to the smallest of moments, like the creepy person standing behind you at the checkout counter or what you cooked for dinner last night, can all make their way into blog entries.

“My husband and I got into a fight on Saturday night; he was drinking and neglectful, and I was feeling tired and pregnant and needy. It’s easy to understand how that combination could escalate, and it ended with hugs and sorries, but now I’m feeling fragile,” reads one of the blogs that Sood tapped for the project. It’s an intensely personal story socked with a variety of emotions—desperation and worry, anger and exhaustion—and it’s a prime example of the kind of thing that people are writing about every day for the whole world to see.

As April Wensel ’08, one of Sood’s mentees, has discovered, one of the most interesting and satisfying things about blogs is that they provide a way to get deep into people’s heads. “Going up to people on the street and asking them how they felt when their grandma died or when they got dumped doesn’t really work,” she says. “And yet for some reason, people divulge exactly this kind of emotional and personal information online in their blogs every day.”

Sood’s quest is to find the most compelling of those emotional voices and let them be heard.

That goal might seem simple as Sood tells it—one gets the feeling from talking to her that she could make even the most complicated programming languages sound easy—but getting there has been part of a long journey. First, she had to train the computer to recognize entries that were stories, as opposed to entries that were mere catalogues or exposition. This work comprised the bulk of her dissertation project, and involved putting each entry through a series of filters to see if it had qualities of a story, such as the right length, focus on just one topic, and uses phrases common to storytelling, such as “I had a dream last night.”

After figuring out which entries were stories, she needed to find out which stories were the most emotional and compelling. To do this, she gave the computer 100,000 reviews of movies that had been awarded between one and five stars. Since the one-star reviews were damning and the five-star reviews were glowing, this produced a database of positive language and negative language for the computer to track. If a story contained a lot of positive words (loved, excited, thrilling) or a lot of negative words (frustrated, stupid, resentful), it was probably emotionally charged. If the words were somewhat neutral, the program would cast the story aside.

Through this process, Sood began to see a glimmer of her ultimate goal to teach computers how to detect a complex array of emotions within stories. One of her most involved attempts to integrate this technology, called Buzz, began with these questions of how to seek out emotional blog entries, but ended up as an acclaimed digital theatre art installation. For an entire year, audience members at the Second City Theater in Chicago could see four digital avatars telling stories in the theatre’s lobby. Although Sood’s computer programming background helped her to write the code for the project, it was her artistic sensibilities that inspired her to take extra time to make sure that the avatars’ voices didn’t sound like monotone robots. She fiddled with the pitch, volume, and speed of the recording until the voices actually conveyed the emotions within the stories. Additionally, she designed it so that when one avatar speaks, the others look toward him or her, like a blog-reading Brady Bunch family. It’s a cute effect, but it conveys the importance of Sood’s goal—that we listen to each other when an important story is being told.

Beyond humans listening to each other, Sood also wants computers to be able to listen and to detect the emotions that are present. If she could do this, it would signal one of the most important achievements in the effort toward artificial intelligence, since Sood and others believe that computers need to be able to understand feelings as well as facts and figures in order to demonstrate human-like intelligence.

“If machines are so much a part of our lives, our interactions with them should be compelling and enjoyable,” she says. “If we’re building these machines that we want to be intelligent, then they have to be emotionally intelligent.”

But dreams of artificial intelligence are a long way off, and for now, the most important thing for Sood is to find and establish strong connections through stories—whether those connections are between people in person, people on the Internet or people and their machines.  

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