Sentiment Analysis Exposed

I made it with Max last night! Mary texts her BFF Shelly.

OMG! Welcome to womanhood!! How was it/he? Shelly texts back.

And right about now, Mary's mom gets a 'notification' on her cell phone that her daughter is texting sexual references, and displays Mary's texts with Shelly upon mom's request.

Mom spends the rest of the day at work fuming, conjuring dialog with her daughter for later that evening when they'll be home together. Mom doesn't like Max. Never did, and told Mary not to see him.

Sentiment Analysis is the latest hip, slick, and trendy software in the Valley. In a nutshell, it classifies text messages, tweets, blogs, FB and social media updates into categories such as 'positive, angry, happy, sad, drug and sexual references'...etc. This information is purchased by businesses, or political campaigns to determine public sentiment about everything, from Mitt Romney to HP. SA has been going on for quite some time, but only recently has it filtered down to the individual level, and this is where it becomes dangerous.

Along with analyzing public sentiment, now you can analyze your employee, child or spouse's text messages, whether they know it or not, if the phone bill is in your name and you pay the monthly SA app fee. You are instantly notified through your computer or cellphone if your child is texting about drugs, sex, or perhaps chatting with someone you don't like, or bullying, or getting bullied. You are notified if your employee is texting his wife instead of attending to your customers. You can assess your husbands mood before seeing him that evening from the SA report on the aggression level of his texts for the day.

Smartphones now have built-in software that tracks all activity, including motion, i.e. whether you're sitting, walking, driving...etc. SA services not only alert their customers of “inappropriate behavior,” but allows them to remotely control all the phones on their plan as well. At work or on the go you can now monitor and control behavior 24/7. Don't like the boy your daughter does. Block his number. Don't care for a site your employee visits. Block access.

SA service companies are popping up everywhere selling all kinds of crap, like 'it's for the safety of the child'—know what your teen is texting, and with their classifiers you'll get to know your kid. Track your employees for greater staff commitment and productivity. And while SA features such as being able to shut your kids phone down when they're texting while driving is unarguable beneficial, using sentiment software to spy on, and then rely on it to assess behavior is irresponsible at best.

If your child is texting while driving their irresponsible behavior is most assuredly reflected in others aspects in their life. Invest the [life]time to teach your kids right from wrong and you'll know, or at least trust when and what they text is in appropriate range. Talk to your kids and you'll learn what's important to them and why, and you may just be wrong about who is good and bad for them. Get to know your employees, what your direct reports need from you to inspire their staff to excel. If performance is optimal, what the hell difference does extraneous phone or online usage make.

Part of the marketing blitz with SA services is it saves the customer time by pulling only 'relevant' information from the average 60 texts a day sent by teens, and ever increasing number of adult texts. Anyone who knows code knows a computer is blank until someone programs it—tells it to do something. With sentiment software, 'notifications' of 'inappropriate behavior' becomes a construct of SA programmers and the sample groups that define the classifiers. Clients can input keywords and other preferences such as number of alerts a day...etc, but the SA program has its own sets of keywords, and more troubling algorithms that analyze patterns of word usage to determine what should be flagged.

While SA programmers purport a 93% accuracy rate in the best scenarios, tests have been limited to small sample groups, and rely on few users to rate the success of assessment. It is beyond arrogance to think we can quantify human emotions. Mom may find out that Mary made it with Max (or not, as Mary may be bragging about something that never happened). But this information does not tell Mom why, beyond her daughter's previous texts that he's 'so hot.' DH texting something sexual to someone other than you? The real time alert on your iPhone may reveal infidelity, but will not illustrate the communication gap between you two that was clearly ignored. And watch out for that 7% SA software is flat out wrong...

Now, more than ever, we are privy to a spectacular array of communication tools with the potential to connect us all for greater understanding and tolerance. SA software is counterproductive for open dialog at best, and fundamentally corrosive at worst. It is sure to infuse discord, distrust, paranoia, and eventually disconnect today's devices from their magnificent potential.


3 comments:

J. Cafesin said...

Seth, there is no such thing as 'credible' SA providers. You can't design an algorithm that can tell you accurately what a person is feeling. Humans lie, cheat, manipulate, even when we don't have to, sometimes just to get away with it. We adapt, go around obstacles like SA software, make up new I.D.s so our parents or spouses can't track us. We are ever inventive, dynamic. SA software may track our behavior but it doesn't and probably won't for some time to come understand us. And selling software as if it does is crap.

Ben said...

Hi Ms Cafesin, really enjoyed your article. I agree that while the majority of applications out there are concentrating on targeted advertising, social media monitoring, or (at worst) surveillance, not all do. As a natural language processing engineer specializing in sentiment analysis, I have to say that I have seen a few impressive applications that make me feel good about the state of the industry. Check out Kanjoya. I just met with them this past week, and they do robust 150-degree sentiments that put most systems to shame.

Someday, this technology will advance beyond short term profiteering and advertising, and will be the foundation for strong AI. It's the digital amygdala - even Data of the Enterprise wished for human emotion.

J. Cafesin said...

Hi Ben,
How will SA account for people lying to themselves. We do it all the time, and believe it, even justify our position with lies that make perfect sense.

Much of what people do is motivated by unconscious desires like fear, lust, ego...etc. Core emotions drive us and we rationalize our behavior to appear more than we are. How will SA get past the lies we tell ourselves when even we believe them?