Friday, October 4, 2013

Social Media, Faith, and the Language of Well Being

There was a fascinating article on Slate recently, one that explored the use of language on social media and aspects of human personality.   A team of researchers at U. Penn. gathered a large sample of Facebook users...seventy five thousand in total.  Those users volunteered to take a survey assessing their personality dynamics, and then allowed the researchers to mine their Facebook posts for linguistic usage.

They then parsed out language use against personality characteristics.  What terms and phrases define different individuals?  What terms are expressed more among introverts, and which are more likely to be part of the language of extroverts?  When men express themselves into social media, what language do they use that distinguishes them from women?

The researchers then converted their word frequency charts into word-clouds, which I will not post here because, well, I try to stay more-or-less church appropriate.  Amazing, some of the vocabulary we use.  But you can follow the link to the study site, and see for yourself.

It was an intriguing and comprehensive project, with some interesting results.

What was most interesting to me was the linguistic variance along the continuum of emotional and personal stability.  The word-cloud for the dysfunctional/struggling set of individuals was what one might expect.  It was mostly filled with expletives, equal parts expressions of rage or depression.  It was anger and isolation.

The word cloud for those who'd indicated a high level of emotional and personal stability was different.     It was filled with indications of physical activity, repeatedly referencing sports.  The keywords "Lakers" and "Basketball," for example, are evidently signs of a balanced and content self.  References to social engagement, with both friends and family, was also a key measure.  As is language indicating regular trips to the beach.

But in the thicket of terms that regularly surface among those reporting emotional and personal well-being, there was a strong concentration of faith-semiotics.  "Blessed." "Praise." "Church." "Lord." "Thankful." "Proverbs."  It was an unmistakable concentration, clearly nonrandom.

This stirred two responses.  

First, it feels worthy of note that as we articulate ourselves into the peculiar thing that is social media, the language of faith is correlated with personal and emotional well being.  Yeah, I know.  Correlation ain't causation.  But individuals who are more content or more in balance are more likely to utilize language that is rooted in a faith tradition as they express themselves to others.  If faith is a delusion, as Richard Dawkins and my atheist friends would suggest, then it is an oddly beneficent one existentially.

Second, I found myself wondering at what challenges this might pose for...oh, dang, I'll just say it...evangelism.  What this study suggests is that the language of those who are in pain and experiencing suffering is different from that of those who are not.  Souls who experience life as rage or a dark cloud of abandonment do not use the same words to express themselves.  For faithful souls, we need to insure that our tendency to be immersed in the language of contentment does not make reaching out in compassion to the hurting and the suffering more difficult.