But the Word Cloud Told Me All I Need to Know, Right?

Social media monitoring is becoming a focal point for companies trying to figure out how social media fits into their broader strategy.  Great idea, but where does it fall short?  It is difficult to get an accurate reading on how commonly a word is used in a given society. In fact, the task of measuring word frequency fully objectively is inherently impossible. The results will always be affected by the size of the corpus and the choice of the texts entered in it. On a global scale, where words take on subtle new meanings as they are appropriated into the semiotic structure of the actor and thereby changed, the problem becomes even more obvious.  Frequency means nothing without cultural context.  So why the hell do we spend so much time doing social media monitoring without trying to really understand what the language, especially specific words, means in the broader context?

This is not to say that frequency isn’t important. It is important and revealing. Frequencies are only broadly indicative of cultural salience and they can only be used as one among many sources of information about a society’s cultural preoccupations. But measurements only tell part of the story. And when they are decontextualized or proscribed meanings based on the person developing the algorithm that assigns sentiment. They give a potentially false understanding. To be correctly interpreted, figures have to be considered in the context of an in-depth analysis of meanings.

If four thousand people call a product “shitty,” it is fair to say that four thousand people reacted negatively to it. But that measurement can’t tell us about the culture of those people – are they engineers addressing it from a technological angle? Are they Venezuelan students reacting to a larger political issue? We assume that a word can be easily categorized along a linear trajectory – negative/positive, etc. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Words can be studied as focal points around which cultural domains are organized.

So before a marketer gets too terribly wound up about what is showing up in this week’s iteration of the social media word cloud, perhaps it makes sense to step back and think about what words mean IN CONTEXT.  That means going beyond frequency and learning about the socio-cultural conditions, online and off, that shape the uses of words at different times and places.  Understand the language and you understand what to do with it.

By Gavin

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