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Can a machine detect sarcasm? Yeah, right

James Kobielus | July 30, 2014
Applying analytics to social media? Good luck -- not all words can be taken at face value. Natural language processing helps, but it's no panacea.

Natural language is a wonder. Like the best poetry, everyday speech often expresses overlapping meanings in tightly wrapped verbal packages.

At the most fundamental level, the linguistic mechanisms for coding, decoding, and distinguishing these packed meanings are built into our brains. But they're also calibrated on the fly by the cultures in which we live. This mental processing spans the range from conscious to unconscious, with most of us barely aware of all the verbal vibrations we're putting out and absorbing as we move through the day.

Sarcasm is a multilayered, semi-conscious linguistic phenomenon par excellence. Essentially, it's any double-edged utterance -- in other words, the speaker's deep intention is diametrically opposed to the surface meaning of his or her words. For example, anytime someone says, "I wonder what genius thought of that?" this is not a suggestion to nominate that person for a Nobel Prize.

When a customer (actual or potential) directs sarcasm at your company, that's almost never a good thing. What that means is they don't respect you enough to state exactly what's on their mind, whether it be good or bad. Not only that, they're probably saying nasty things about you behind your back. In the process, they may be signaling that they're about to churn away from you or, if they've never been your customer or have recently churned, they may be urging others to stop doing business with you. That's definitely an issue you need to address proactively if you wish to remain in business.

Distinguishing sarcasm from sincerity can be quite tricky if you're not in the same demographic segment as the speaker or, even if you are, if you're entirely unaware of the situational context in which something was said. Even if you try to remain current on the latest lingo of the group you're monitoring, the culture moves so fast and in so many mysterious ways that you may be caught off guard when a long-familiar phrase suddenly acquires air quotes among the terminally hip. It's not always easy to know how many grains of salt to sprinkle on an otherwise innocuous figure of speech.

For those reasons and more, sarcasm analytics most certainly can not be automated 100 percent. When focused on the statements of specific individuals in particular circumstances, it will always demand some degree of human judgment and a fair amount of uncertainty in your assessments. The best way to ascertain any individual's true intentions is to probe them through conversation. Of course, there's nothing to stop the person in question from lying, bluffing, or hedging their statements to keep their true intentions a closely held secret. But you can at least try to drill through with all the sarcasm-whacking tools at your disposal.

 

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