We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion
Four years and 12 million feelings later, a book that lives up to its grand expectations.
By Maria Popova
In 2005, visionary artist-storyteller Jonathan Harris (whom I’ve already established I love) embarked upon an ambitious experimental journey into human emotion. The project, titled We Feel Fine, soon became an icon of interactive storytelling and data visualization. The premise was simple: Every few minutes, an algorithm would scrobble the world’s newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling,” and harvest human emotion by recording the full sentence and context in which the phrase occurs, identifying the polarity (happy, sad, depressed, etc. ) of the specific “feeling” expressed. Because the blogosphere is lined with metadata, it was possible to extract rich information about the posts and their authors, from age and gender to geolocation and local weather conditions, adding a new layer of meaning to the feelings.
The result was a database of millions of human feelings, growing by about 20,000 per day.
This week, Harris and co-author Sep Kamvar release We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion, a remarkable book exploring the 12 million human emotions recorded since 2005 through brilliantly curated words and images that make this massive repository of found sentiment incredibly personal yet incredibly relatable. From despair to exhilaration, from the public to the intimate, it captures the passions and dreams of which human existence is woven through candid vignettes, intelligent infographics and scientific observations.
With its unique software-driven model, We Feel Fine is a revelation of emotion through a prism of rational data that only makes the emotional crux deeper and more compelling. It is the rich symphony to PostSecret‘s scattered and sporadic soundbites, transcending mere voyeurism to offer a complex, layered context that spans sociology, psychology and digital anthropology.
From sentiments about cities to approval ratings of celebrities to the effects of gender and age on emotion, We Feel Fine picks at the fabric of feeling and thought from all sides and angles to reveal a complex portrait of human essence.
You can peek inside the book online and even download many of the pages as PDFs.
For more about the challenges of translating a web narrative onto a print medium, how the idea for the book first came up, and what’s next for Jonathan, check out my exclusive Q&A with him for Wired UK. And grab a copy of We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion — for yourself, or as one of the smartest holiday gifts out there.
Published December 3, 2009