According to the BBC, a French company called Spotter has designed a sarcasm detector. It relies on an algorithm and, if Spotter’s estimates are correct, is capable of picking up on about 80 percent of sarcasm. That’s GREAT!
It used to be that you could only algorithm your way to 50 percent. I could do better than that, and I am the person who responds to “Cool story, bro!” with effusive, heartfelt thanks. (Then again, I once spent several hours squinting at a ceiling to try to locate where “gullible” was written on it, so maybe I am a bad sample.)
“One of our clients is Air France. If someone has a delayed flight, they will tweet ‘Thanks Air France for getting us into London two hours late’ — obviously they are not actually thanking them,” the company’s U.K. sales director, Richard May, told the BBC. I’m glad they are here to tell us these things.
Eighty percent, if correct, is higher than some people.
I get a fair number of e-mails every week from people who do not realize when I am joking, because communicating online through text alone has robbed us of the rich nonverbal cues that would have indicated that, say, Jonathan Swift did not actually want to eat the Irish children. (I am not sure what these rich nonverbal cues were in Jonathan Swift’s case. Possibly he wiggled his eyebrows a lot.) I suggested earlier this week that the president needed to be impeached after declaring that broccoli his favorite food, and I got a note from a reader observing, quite reasonably, that “if any random, basic person said to you, ‘Broccoli is my favorite food,’ you wouldn’t say, ‘What, that’s crazy. You should lose your job.'” Good observation, citizen! Please don’t run that last sentence through Spotter.
People keep making the case that we need a “Sark Mark” or indicator of sarcasm, given the vast volume of our communication that takes place via text, either online or in our phones. And that’s true. Without intonation, as numerous T-shirts remind us, a misplaced comma can be the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and “Let’s eat Grandma!” You can get into dangerous territory quickly, long before you reach the other common problem of parents mistaking LOL for Lots of Love. It is the inability to discern tone that forces congenitally earnest people like me to end every sentence in our e-mails with an exclamation point, lest we be misconstrued. Better to sound a little deranged at all times than to sound like you might not mean it!
And that’s not the only application for a sarcasm indicator. Consider the Internet rule Poe’s Law, which states that once you pass a certain point, it becomes impossible to tell the difference between actual extremism and a parody of extremism. As a first test, I would like to run this subreddit fundraiser for Victims of Feminism through Spotter’s detector. Maybe the machine will be able to discern if this is ridicule or COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS. If it can do that, it’ll be worth its weight in gold.