On May 31, the most commonly used words on English language Twitter included “terrorist,” “violence” and “racist.” This was about a week after George Floyd was killed, near the start of the protests that would last all summer.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Hedonometer’s sadness readings have set multiple records. This year, “there was a full month — and we never see this — there was a full month of days that the Hedonometer was reading sadder than the Boston Marathon day,” Dr. Danforth said. “Our collective attention is very ephemeral. So it was really remarkable then that the instrument, for the first time, showed this sustained, depressed mood, and then it got even worse, when the protests started.”
James Pennebaker, an intellectual founder of online language analysis and a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, became interested in what our choice of words reveals about ourselves — our moods, our characters — exactly at the moment when the internet was first supplying such an enormous stockpile of text to draw from and consider.
“These digital traces are markers that we’re not aware of, but they leave marks that tell us the degree to which you are avoiding things, the degree to which you are connected to people,” said Dr. Pennebaker, the author of “The Secret Life of Pronouns,” among other books. “They are telling us how you are paying attention to the world.”
But, Dr. Pennebaker said, one of the challenges of this line of research is that language itself is always evolving — and algorithms are notoriously bad at discerning context.
Take, for example, cursing. “Swear words have changed in the last 10 years,” he said, noting that now, far from necessarily being an expression of anger, cursing can be either utterly casual, or even positive, used to emphasize a point or express an enthusiasm. He is updating his electronic dictionaries accordingly.