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October 11th, 2006 James Boyda | Featured Stories
 

The Emotional Matrix

A new Web-art project, WeFeelFine.org, connects feelings in Portland, Belarus and beyond.

     
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One rainy day, a young man in Portland, Ore., has the feeling of splitting in half when he closes his eyes. A Portland actress feels she has to eat to be sexy—but she cannot bear to eat in front of the man she wants to be sexy for.

A 52-year-old female does not feel comfortable in life anymore.

A 34-year-old male does not feel anything toward the loss of a child.

And a 66-year-old man in Portland who likes being his age feels "a lot of ladies" would prefer if he were younger.

WeFeelFine.org, online since May, has been accumulating millions of emotions from blogs around the world since August 2005. Designed by Brooklyn artist Jonathan Harris and Bay Area Google guru Sepandar Kamvar, the WeFeelFine project searches the Net every few minutes for iterations of the ubiquitous online diary phrase "I feel." When the site finds an emotion, it records the entire sentence and then catalogs the feeling by type. If the sentence reads as a caption to a photograph, the picture is also taken in by the system. Overall, the sites uploads an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 new emotions from six continents per day.

Due to the open platform of blogs, WeFeelFine.org is able to extract a large amount of demographic information about its authors. Automatically, the site's program organizes the data it gleans into a particle system. As soon as a viewer accesses the site, a deluge of dots jitterbugs across the computer screen. The color, shape and size of each confetti-colored particle indicates what type of emotion is inside it.

A particle can be opened and explored by clicking on it—the unique feeling of an individual and a link to the blog source are thus revealed. But not all particles are proportionate. The terse, quicksilver emotions ("I feel for him," from Groningen, Belarus) skim away from the cursor, elusive. The overwrought passions loiter onscreen: "I am not eating well I am not sleeping well I'm all moody...obsession back again almost too much sheesha cheap Pakisanti food and coffee bean gawrsh it feels like the summer...yaiii..." from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

WeFeelFine.org is both an art piece and a database. Emotions are sorted by age, gender, weather, and words—from "abandoned" to "zero." If traversing the global consciousness seems labyrinthine (Where to begin? Estonia? Gambia? Bangladesh?), the site breaks down to the level of countries, states and cities.

What are the top 10 most common emotions in Portland? "Better," "good," "bad," "right," "well," "first," "comfortable," "shit[ty]," "off" and "sorry." WeFeelFine is seductive precisely because it wants to place local life in dialogue with the wider world. The people of Portland, for example, share the same top three emotions with those in Bangalore, India. Who knew?

WeFeelFine charts the emotional topography of the human race in six poetic webpages (or "movements," as co-creator Kamvar calls them) that organize data in different ways. "Our motivation for having different movements," Kamvar wrote WW via email, "was to recognize that human feelings are complex. We hoped that multiple related views would...provoke different emotional responses to the piece."

A page called "Murmurs" presents the databases' findings as a structured list of emotions. "Montage" attempts to show with pictures what emotions look like. A page called "Madness," however, is the most evolved of the movements.

An explosion of glorious scintilla, Madness visualizes a matrix where all people are interconnected. Emotional atoms ricochet against each other, painting a give-and-take sense of humanity. In the movement, all feelings—albeit disparate in kind and creation—can coexist within the same frame. Madness asks us to compare: What do millions of humans living on opposite edges of the world have in common?

A lover in Portland's sister city, Guadalajara, Mexico, contemplates a kiss. An underling in Sapporo, Japan, considers how to bury his feelings so that they are not made to serve the emperor. A 26-year-old in Haifa, Israel, holed up in a bunker, laments the nagging feeling that he's beginning to resemble David Koresh, sans guitar or weapons stash. And, a 22-year-old American soldier in Baghdad sorts out his free time—" have really nothing to do except clean my weapons and it feels great"—on a day when it was sunny.

WeFeelFine does not harvest emotions; it only creates subsets of words and symbols taken out of context from a larger database (the Web). So the site endows a type of Internet supertourism that allows users to approach the breadth of human pathos from a safe distance. Though not a practical tool to build community, like MySpace, it's a pleasant way to culturally rubberneck without guilt or contact—maybe more like a YouTube for the heartsick or lonely.

This visionary online fantasy is a representation of what we want to believe in most: That something "out there," unseen (a metaphysical force? A digital God?), is shaping the chaotic human experience into a tangible framework. This matrix may only be a metaphor of divine unity, but it's a most beautiful one at that.


Check it out @ WeFeelFine.org
 
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