Mom’s Old Saying is Reversed on the Internet!

No rain emoticon

Image by amboo who? via Flickr

I thought I’d depart from our usual postings a little bit on a topic that I’ve been thinking about for some time.

I’ve been researching social media monitoring tools, and their ability to track what these tools call “sentiment,” which is whether a post or comment is positive, negative, or neutral.  These tools basically scrub the text of a posting looking for keywords that might define the posting as positive or negative.  In general, these types of tools do a pretty good job, and are around 70-80% accurate.  This social media sentiment article is a good write-up on sentiment and sentiment accuracy using text-scrubbing tools.

After researching these tools quite a bit, I had a bit of an enlightened moment that brought me back to my own childhood.

I argued with my mother fairly often, despite the fact that she was very good to me.  I would often use sarcasm in these arguments as a means of causing pain.  Sarcasm is easy to note when you are face to face.  I have since apologized to my mother numerous times (especially now that I have my own teenager) about how I would act during those arguments.   Her and I are still very close, as she raised me to love my family no matter what.  Sorry again mom.  I know I was a tough kid to handle.

Eventually, after an argument was over, my mom would pull an old saying out of her bag and use it.  She’d say:

“You know… it’s not what you say.  It’s how you say it.”

Given how often I argued with her, I got to hear this saying a lot.  It’s a very true statement;  body language, tone of voice, rolling of the eyes… all of these things contribute to how you express meaning in your language.

The “how you say it” part is particularly troublesome for these automated sentiment tools.  They have no way to track sarcasm, innuendo, or other creative wordplay.  Case in point:

I LOVE potatoes.  I could eat them every day.  If you serve me potatoes with every meal, I would be the happiest person alive.

My question to our readers:  Do I like potatoes?

On the Internet, mom’s old saying is turned on its head. It now becomes:

“On the Internet, it’s not how you say it… it’s what you say.”

There are many examples of this that happen to me every day.  When I read an email with someone expressing a strong opinion, I often think to myself “Now what did they mean by that?” If I had actually heard them say the same words out loud or been in the room with them, I would probably be able to tell exactly what they meant.

Why do People use Emoticons?

Emoticons have been around for a long time.  They help to convey “online body language” in otherwise nebulous text that could be taken in several ways.

Of course, there are a TON of emoticons out there that can help you convey meaning in your language.  Lots of different people use them, and being familiar with what they mean can help you “read between the lines.”   If you’re being sarcastic, you can use a “rolls eyes” emoticon.  If you’re jazzed about something, you can use an “excited” emoticon.  Most emoticons make a lot of sense if you tilt your head and take a good look.  Here is a partial list (taken from Wikipedia’s list of emoticons):

:) – a standard “smile” icon
;) – a “wink” smile
C.C – rolling eyes
:-/ – uneasiness or hesitancy
:( – sadness
<3 – love
:-O – surprise or shock

These types of emoticons go a long ways towards defining meaning in a new world where we cannot see body language.  They an interesting way to enhance the way we communicate online.

By the way…

I really do like potatoes a lot <3.  It’s by far my favorite food.  No sarcasm there. :)

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Daryll Swager

About Daryll Swager

Daryll Swager has been in the world of online communities and social media since 1997. He currently holds a position as a manager of the communities and social media team at Quest software. In recent years, Daryll has founded the VMware User Community, the Terremark vCloud Express community, the Vizioncore vCommunity, and the new Quest Sofware user community. In his spare time, Daryll enjoys fishing, playing computer games, and hanging out with his wife.

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