Sarah Sood: Taking the Emotional Pulse of the Blogosphere

June 29, 2009 · Print This Article

I was leafing through my alma mater’s quarterly magazine over the weekend and, while intending to flip straight through to the Class Notes and Obits like I usually do, I found myself absorbed instead by a fascinating profile of Pomona College Assistant Professor (and Northwestern University grad) Sarah Sood, a computer scientist whose research focuses on the emotional content of the blogosphere.

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Sood is interested in connecting people via the stories they tell. For the past six years, she’s been designing programs that enable computers to identify the emotional components of blog-based narratives. The results thus far have produced Buzz, a search and retrieval system that mines blogs for interesting and emotionally compelling stories.

If you’re a Chicagoan, you may very well have seen Sood’s work in 2005 when for a period of one year Buzz was displayed in the lobby of the Second City Theater. Taking the form of a multi-media theatrical installation, it presented four talking-head avatars, each of whom related stories derived from Sood’s research. A description of the project can be found on Northwestern University’s Infolab website, excerpted below:

“Buzz is a multimedia installation that exposes the buzz generated by blogs. Buzz finds the blogs which are compelling; those where someone is laying their feelings on the table, exposing a dream or a nightmare that they had, making a confession or apology to a close friend, or regretting an argument that they had with their mother or spouse. It embodies the blogger with virtual actors who externalize these monologues by reading them aloud.”

Click the image below to be taken to a demonstration clip from the installation:

Buzz Demo

Buzz Demo

Picture 1

Sood also used the Buzz retrieval system to explore emotional reactions to Chicago landmarks (click here for demo):

http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~sowsley/media/chicago-buzz-small.mov

Chicago Buzz

While installations like Buzz provide entertaining diversions, Sood’s next project promises to be far more rich in its possibilities. She is developing an “emotional-state search engine” that will seek out web content driven by one of six emotions: happiness, fear, sadness, surprise, disgust and anger. Writer Lori Kido Lopez, who authored the aforementioned profile of Sood, points out that the Buzz-based emotional search engine “is vastly different from a typical search engine.” Lopez explains,

“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.”

Sood hopes to have the website ready for public use by the end of this summer. I’m already thinking of emotional buzzwords and topics to pair them with…the possibilities are endless.

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