Can A Blog Make People Happy?
In late October 2012, I enrolled in the 6-week course Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization with Alberto Cairo, an internationally renowned expert in the field. The course is offered by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.
For our final project, Professor Cairo gave us the liberty to do whatever we want. All we had to do was choose a topic, gather the appropriate information, and present an idea to show that in graphic form.
Background information on the situation of homosexuality in Lebanon: Even though Beirut is often portrayed in the international media as a gay haven in the Middle East, homosexual acts in Lebanon are punishable by up to one year in prison under Article 534 that criminalizes “sexual intercourse contrary to nature”. In addition, homophobia – be it institutionalized, internalized or social – is still widespread in the country.
In his introductory post published on January 16, 2012, Raja explained his intentions behind the blog:
“There’s only one thing I hope to get out of this blog: Show people that one can live in Beirut, be openly gay, and be happy, surrounded by a strong support system. Simply put, this blog aims to portray the often quite boring, sometimes really exciting, life of an out gay man in Lebanon.”
When I saw Raja a few weeks ago, he told me that he felt he was veering off track and that his blog posts were no longer as positive as he had hoped. Actually, his most recent posts went beyond giving gay people in Lebanon – and possibly beyond – a sliver of hope through his experience to address a horrible experience at the doctor, dependence, the problem with an LGBT organization in Lebanon called Helem, an independent platform hoping to take back the Lebanese parliament in 2013, music and the movement for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, and bigotry and homophobia on TV.
Raja was no longer simply blogging about his life as an out gay man in Beirut, nor was the silver lining he was trying to show his readers that obvious.
I told Raja that even so, people were still getting something out of his blog, because to me, happiness means different things to different people. Raja agreed. “It is impossible to define happiness, because everyone has his or her version of it,” he later wrote me in an email. “The problem with that is that if we can’t all agree on what happiness is, then universal happiness is impossible, because people are always after their own happiness, even if it can harm other people. If we could all agree on the definition, then we would all aim for it. Of course, the definition is impossible to obtain because we are selfish idiots.”
But what if we went back to basics? What if we all turned to one universal reference? Dictionaries.
Dictionaries describe happiness as “a mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.”
When Raja talks about “happiness” on his blog, what exactly does he talk about?
Raja hasn’t tagged all his posts. So I didn’t focus on working on tag-based visualizations, which would have probably helped highlight the topics addressed in his blog.
This is a Wordle (Word Cloud) of all of Raja’s 52 posts*:
Wordle generates “word clouds” from texts. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.
* Until the time of writing this post.
When people comment on Raja’s posts about “happiness”, what exactly do they talk about?
This is a Wordle of all the comments on Raja’s blog*:
* Until the time of writing this post.
Clearly, there are similarities between the Posts Wordle and the Comments Wordle, because the comments are directly related to the posts.
Alternatively, this could be an interactive comparison inspired by Jeff Clark’s News Spectrum, a visualization of the words used for two topics in the latest results from Google News. Chris Clark’s work is itself based on Chris Harrison‘s series of visualizations that explore word associations.
What do Raja and his readers talk about when they talk about “happiness”? (Sketch)
In this interactive visualization, when users click on a word, a pop up opens with the complete related post or comment from Raja’s blog. This will allow them to see in which context each word was used.
OhMyHappiness Tag Cloud with Posts and Comments
I used the the Tag Cloud visualization tool on Many Eyes to explore the popularity of words in both the posts and comments. The first view includes the content of posts and comments together. Once you mouse over a word, you can see the number of times it was repeated with some context. When you tick the “compare” button, you’ll be able to compare occurrences of words in the posts to occurrences of words in the comments.
OhMyHappiness Comments Word Tree
In another experiment, I used the Word Tree visualization tool on Many Eyes to explore links between words and phrases strictly in the comments. The Word Tree lets you pick a word or phrase and shows you all the different contexts in which the word or phrase appears. The contexts are arranged in a tree-like branching structure to reveal recurrent themes and phrases. I chose the Word Tree because I thought it would help to investigate “positive emotions” Raja’s readers may have inferred from his posts, like thankfulness, gratefulness, love, appreciation, wonder, amazement, and relief.
In the case of Raja’s blog, “happiness” could come from having a forum to share opinions readers otherwise can’t. For example, LGBT readers who aren’t publicly out can express themselves on OhMyHappiness and talk to its author. In fact, Raja told me of young readers who reach out to him by email to discuss personal issues about all things gay away from the blog. “Happiness” could also come from having an online resource like OhMyHappiness that works on fighting homophobia and bigotry, and dispelling myths about non-conforming sexualities. These are two notions of a positive state of well-being that are inferred from the blog, rather than found in it, and cannot really be visualized as such.
This post is more about exploring data and experimenting with tools than drawing an indisputable conclusion. Raja’s blog served as a case study or the information source for my project. It is in no way an exhaustive resource to explore happiness. If I were a programmer or I had the technical support of one, I probably would have been able to try other ways of presenting the information. One of the things I thought of, for example, was creating a rating system for the comments to look at how positive or negative they were. Another thing I thought of was tagging comments myself. But I was worried I’d be “subjectively interpreting or feeding” the data. As I recently learned from Professor Cairo, there’s a broad discipline called “digital humanities” that is dedicated to such efforts. In any case, I certainly felt the need to do more data mining and processing. In a recent blog post about the different subject areas and disciplines involved in data visualization, data visualization architect and trainer Andy Kirk talked about the 8 hats of data visualization: Initiator, Data Scientist, Journalist, Computer Scientist, Designer, Cognitive Scientist, Communicator and Project Manager. This is all to say that there are other ways of looking at Raja’s blog, just as there are other ways of exploring happiness. (See how Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvarcall visualized human emotion, in six movements with We Feel Fine. It is awesome.) I’m open to suggestions. And I’m extremely curious to learn more about “digital humanities.” I may or may not return to this post and the idea behind it and build on it at a later stage. But I can say one thing, analyzing texts with words is more challenging than analyzing data with numbers.