With sentiment analysis, context always matters

Matthew Russell on the limitations and applications of sentiment analysis.

People are finding new ways to use sentiment analysis tools to conduct business and measure market opinion. But is such analysis really effective, or is it too subjective to be relied upon?

In the following interview, Matthew Russell (@ptwobrussell), O’Reilly author and principal and co-founder of Zaffra, says the quality of sentiment analysis depends on the methodology. Large datasets, transparent methods, and remembering that context matters, he says, are key factors.

What is sentiment analysis?

Matthew RussellMatthew Russell: Think of sentiment analysis as “opinion mining,” where the objective is to classify an opinion according to a polar spectrum. The extremes on the spectrum usually correspond to positive or negative feelings about something, such as a product, brand, or person. For example, instead of taking a poll, which essentially asks a sample of a population to respond to a question by choosing a discrete option to communicate sentiment, you might write a program that mines relevant tweets or Facebook comments with the objective of scoring them according to the same criteria to try and arrive at the same result.

What are the flaws with sentiment analysis? How can something like sarcasm be addressed?

Matthew Russell: Like all opinions, sentiment is inherently subjective from person to person, and can even be outright irrational. It’s critical to mine a large — and relevant — sample of data when attempting to measure sentiment. No particular data point is necessarily relevant. It’s the aggregate that matters.

An individual’s sentiment toward a brand or product may be influenced by one or more indirect causes &dmash; someone might have a bad day and tweet a negative remark about something they otherwise had a pretty neutral opinion about. With a large enough sample, outliers are diluted in the aggregate. Also, since sentiment very likely changes over time according to a person’s mood, world events, and so forth, it’s usually important to look at data from the standpoint of time.

As to sarcasm, like any other type of natural language processing (NLP) analysis, context matters. Analyzing natural language data is, in my opinion, the problem of the next 2-3 decades. It’s an incredibly difficult issue, and sarcasm and other types of ironic language are inherently problematic for machines to detect when looked at in isolation. It’s imperative to have a sufficiently sophisticated and rigorous enough approach that relevant context can be taken into account. For example, that would require knowing that a particular user is generally sarcastic, ironic, or hyperbolic, or having a larger sample of the natural language data that provides clues to determine whether or not a phrase is ironic.

Is the phrase “sentiment analysis” being used appropriately?

Matthew Russell: I’ve never had a problem with the phrase “sentiment analysis” except that it’s a little bit imprecise in that it says nothing about how the analysis is being conducted. It only describes what is being analyzed — sentiment. Given the various flaws I’ve described, it’s pretty clear that the analysis techniques can sometimes be as subjective as the sentiment itself. Transparency in how the analysis occurs and additional background data — such as the context of when data samples were gathered, what we know about the population that generated them, and so forth — is important. Of course, this is the case for any test involving non-trivial statistics.

Sentiment analysis recently was in the news, touted as an effective tool for predicting stock market prices. What other non-marketing applications might make use of this sort of analysis?

Matthew Russell: The stock market prices is potentially a problematic example because it’s not always the case that a company that creates happy consumers is necessarily profitable. For example, key decision makers could still make poor fiscal decisions or take on bad debt. Like anything else involving sentiment, you have to hold the analysis loosely.

A couple examples, though, might include:

  • Politicians could examine the sentiment of their constituencies over time to try and gain insight into whether or not they are really representing the interests that they should be. This could possibly involve realtime analysis for a controversial topic, or historical analysis to try and identify trends such as why a “red state” is becoming a “blue state,” or vice-versa. (Sentiment analysis is often looked at as a realtime activity, but mining historical samples can be incredibly relevant too.)
  • Conference organizers could use sentiment analysis based on book sales or related types of data to identify topics of interest for the schedule or keynotes.

Of course, keep in mind that just because the collective sentiment of a population might represent what the population wants, it’s not necessarily the case that it’s in its best interests.

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