Nick Bilton on multitasking and media
Michael Pollan's gospel of sustainable food

Nicholas Felton wants to know what we are saying.

I'm tag-teaming today, as I did yesterday, with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

Nicholas Felton (Pop!Tech bio) "has been deeply categorizing his own life," says Andrew Zolli. "We started a conversation not only about his work but about how we react to all of these messages. We decided to work together on an interesting project, involving Nick's work, looking at the impact of these messages on our conversation -- which I'm excited for you to hear about."

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

"I've become fairly well known for the Feltron Personal Annual Report," Felton explains. (Find it at In 2005 he summarized his year in this document which appeared online -- where he'd gone, some of the food he'd eaten, the music he'd listened to. For some reason it traveled well beyond those circles; design bloggers were entertained, stock brokers found it amusing. The following year he created a print version, and started working harder at documentation. In 2007 he printed 2000 copies and found an audience willing to purchase it.

All the streets he'd traveled down in New York (taxi routes and so forth), eating and drinking and dining: all of these things are mapped-out. The report became increasingly elaborate in 2008: he chronicled everywhere he'd traveled that year. "My primary interest in 2008 was determining how far I'd traveled" -- walking, flights, a stray hayride, chairlifts (up and down.) "This has become increasingly popular," and it's since turned into a web application,

Felton worked with Rob Deeming and Ken Reisman on a project called What we are saying. (Ken has created, which looks at Amazon reviews of products and summarizes them into something short and digestible.) The three of them decided to look at America over the course of a single week: July 27 through August 3, 2009. They analyzed NYTimes front pages, analyzing the Times and other sources for keywords. (Looking at a set of screencaps of those front pages, the prevalence of health care headlines is particularly noticeable.)

They looked at both user-generated content and media sources. For media sources, they used Daylife headlines (9000 headlines from major media); for user-generated content, at Twitter and at an aggregator of blogs and NYTimes comments.

Volume analysis: there is a limit to how many conversations can coexist. "There's a limit to human interest and human conversation," Felton says. Talk about health care outweighed talk about food during this week -- 23% of the conversations were about health care, while only 22% of conversations were about food. "If we bundle these into media sources and user sources, there's a disparity" -- in the media, 12% was about food, while in user sources, 33% of conversation was about food. This applies to health care as well: 19% of media sources, and 27% of user sources, were talking about health and health care. On the user side of things, people are talking about a wider range of topics, while on the media side it tends to be more of an echo chamber.

The data also allowed the researchers to measure keywords and emoticons. 73% of all of the items they looked at were considered positive, which says something about how we weigh negative sentiment.

During this week, economic concerns outweighed all other issues. Health care was the greatest topic of conversation, but the economy was what people felt most negative about -- and innovation was what people felt most positive about. They also looked at media sources and their biases; user sources tended to be more positive than media sources did. Interestingly, New York Times articles were 9% more negative than average sentiments tended to be.

"Finally, we can look at the terms being used," Felton says. "In the energy topic, the top three terms are 'green,' 'solar,' and 'oil.'" In the conversation about innovation, we speak in terms of computers and internet; 'Microsoft' was the #1 term found, with 'Google' and 'Yahoo' coming behind. So people aren't talking about other forms of innovation in other ways.

Returning to the dominant conversation about health and health care: the conversation used six of the same terms across all points of view. Regardless of what side of the debate people were on, they were using the same words. The top five words during that week were: 'people,' 'reform,' 'green,' 'schools,' and 'Obama,' showing perhaps that there's a strong interest in hope and in change.