Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar

Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar

Essay by N. Elizabeth Schlatter, curator

By putting their emotions into words on their blogs, the millions of bloggers in the We Feel Fine database are also taking a step back, observing their emotions, and forming a more clear and precise picture of what it is they are feeling. In doing so, they are able to rise above their emotions. Little did they know what a beautiful collective picture they were building in the process. 

Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar. 1

Encountering We Feel Fine elicits amazement due to both the immense number of sentiments being presented and categorized, as well as the efficient and elegant design by its creators, Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar. Launched in 2005, the website is a data visualization of more than 12 million posts in English that contain the words “I feel” or “I am feeling,” culled in real time from blogs and then sorted according to a variety of demographics of the authors, such as gender, age, and location. Further delving into We Feel Fine reveals all variety of personal statements, from shockingly intimate pronouncements to mundane observations to universal truisms.

We Feel Fine can seem alternately superficial and earnest on a massive scale. Drilling down into the work one usually finds a single sentence by each blogger that can seem pithy, naïve, or painfully self-conscious, essentially naked without context. The images pulled from the blogs by the program likewise appear vulnerable or worse, derivative of stereotypes perpetuated by the media. After spending time on the site, it is no wonder that one of the popular feelings amongst teenagers on We Feel Fine is angst. 2

Although patterns in feelings emerge from the site that sometimes confirm age, gender, and social stereotypes 3, Harris and Kamvar interject little judgment in their data visualization design and in their interpretations and analysis discussed in their accompanying book. Every feeling from each source is accorded the same dignity as, well, a bit of data. This perspective lends not only a sense of wonder to the entire project, but also one of grace. It enables the artists the distance to view this vast amount of content as both enlightening and flawed.

The subtitle on the site reads “An exploration of human emotion, in six movements.” In addition, the descriptive text about the book declares the project, “a portrait of human emotions,” “a collective emotional landscape,” and “a crash course in the secrets of human emotion.” However, as mentioned in the quote above, Harris and Kamvar rightly note that We Feel Fine is not exactly culling emotions but culling what people say their emotions are, in English specifically. This distinction is important because blogs are a major source of the “I feel” statements and therefore offer a particular form of communication, different than texting or the spoken word. Blogging is more of a singular means of expression, like a megaphone, than texting, which conversely is private and dependent upon two-way interactions. Blog readers can respond (or not, depending on the blogger’s controls), yet the power relationship between the blogger and the reader/responder is not equal. The blogger, having a public platform, self-censors according to what he or she is willing to share. Granted, some blogs may appear to lack self-censorship. But for the moment, the distance between thought and blog post is still greater than that between thought and spoken word.

The “feelings” in We Feel Fine are written descriptions and observations of emotions. Perhaps this seems obvious because a blog relies on written language as its medium. But what is fascinating about this work is not just the scale of the project or the level of revealing self-reflection, but also how the project evidences the limitations of English as a means of expression. For example, the most popular “feeling” on the site is “better” amongst all age groups, genders, and locations. 4 But “better” is a comparative word. It refers to a different feeling that has improved, and that original feeling is essential to understanding the meaning of “better.” Consider the following examples culled on January 6, 2013:

  • For example, if i’m stressed and then i continuously drop stuff eventually i drop something and i curse and that alone makes me feel better so if someone hears and says what’s wrong that question alone just pisses me off, cuz for me nothing is wrong anymore
  • i’m sitting here by myself with the wind in my hair and the stars are out and i feel a bit better now that i’m out
  • i picked up some advil sinus medicine and had a bowl of chicken noodle soup and took a nap and i feel worlds better today.

The authors of these statements hardly feel the same, but better is the chosen word to describe the upgrade in whatever they were feeling before these posted sentiments. “Good” and “bad” appear next in the list of most common feelings, but again, these are presumably verbal surrogates for feelings that could be more specifically designated, such as lonely, lovable, or, in a more physiological context, experiencing angina. 5

The topic of semiotics in social media has already garnered academic attention. By omitting much of the referential material needed to fully interpret the meaning of a feeling described in a blog post, We Feel Fine reveals English’s tenuous netting. These decontextualized feelings communicate little to the viewers of this work but provide a service to the writers, those who know what “feeling better” means and who gain some sort of benefit from writing it. Thus, for the sixth and final movement of We Feel Fine, Harris and Kamvar picked the perfect symbol to represent the ambiguity of the “feelings” in their project — multi-hued, squiggly mounds.

Experience “We Feel Fine”

 

Biography

Jonathan Harris (American, born 1979) studied Photography and Computer Science at Princeton University. His work has been exhibited widely at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Le Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; the CAFA Art Museum, Beijing; the Garage Center for Contemporary Art, Moscow; and The Pace Gallery, New York. His work has been recognized by AIGA; Ars Electronica; Print Magazine, which named him a New Visual Artist (2008); and The World Economic Forum, which named him a Young Global Leader (2009). He has won two Webby Awards (2005) and a Fabrica fellowship (2004).

Read more about Harris and his work

Sep Kamvar (b. 1977) received his A.B. in Chemistry from Princeton University (1999) and his Ph.D. in Scientific Computing and Computational Mathematics from Stanford University (2004). He is currently the LG Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT and the Director of the Social Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab. Prior to MIT, Kamvar was head of personalization at Google; a consulting professor of Computational and Mathematical Engineering at Stanford University; as well as founder and CEO of Kaltix, a personalized search company acquired by Google in 2003. He has authored two books and over forty technical publications and patents in the fields of search and social computing. Kamvar’s work as been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, and the Gwangju Design Biennial, South Korea.

Read more about Kamvar and his work 

Notes:

  1. Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion (New York: Scribner, 2009), p. 278.
  2. Ibid, p. 251.
  3. Ibid, p. 230-231. On these pages Harris and Kamvar look at findings such as “Women express more love, affection, and warmth than men,” compare their conclusions with a few academic studies, and offer up some statistics from their own site.
  4. Ibid, p. 240, and the website “Mobs” movement
  5. The specificity of the feelings relates somewhat proportionately to the level of popularity. For example, disconnected, burnt, itchy, and ambivalent are examples of less popular feelings