“The Comments Section is the Real World.”

“The end result is a collective state of intellectual isolation.” – Basar, Coupland, Obrist 2021, pg 123

from Slogans for the 21st Century (2011-2014), 2021
Multiple Mediums
Exhibition: 24/7 A Wake Up Call For Our Nonstop World, 2019
Somerset House, London
Douglas Coupland

Sebastian Veg’s (2016) description of slogans as a “textual space” and means to frame “public spheres” in chaotic environments is surprisingly instructive when attempting to make sense of Douglas Coupland’s Slogans on Instagram… particularly when reading the comments. In an earlier article for The Atlantic titled “Hong Kong’s Enduring Identity Crisis,” Veg (2013) discusses an interesting circumstance surrounding the 2013 date of the annual June 4th candlelight vigil that commemorates the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown: the event’s organizers—The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Democratic Patriotic Movements of China—proposed slogan for the event “Love the country, love the people; the Hong Kong spirit” stirred an unusual amount of controversy amongst participants. At the center of the controversy was the notion of “patriotism” ingrained in the slogan and the result was a citywide debate that resulted in the Alliance choosing to drop the slogan all together.

When performing a close reading of the comments attached to each Slogan on Douglas Coupland’s Instagram, it is clear that certain Slogans draw a harsher reaction than others. The Slogan “NEW ZEALAND SOMEHOW NEEDS TO BE PUNISHED” provides an interesting example, from the comments:

“What? Why DC, why?!,” “Wha????,” “Unfollowing.”

Instagram Commenters 2020

Coupland’s Slogans on Instagram are an interesting textual artifact because, while they are clearly art of some kind, they are often treated as public opinions given by the artist himself, or jokes / memes, or as literal Slogans meant to define… something, a community of some kind? But a community of what? Douglas Coupland fans? Canadians? Western Liberals? There is a clear bent towards all three communities when reading each and every comment (and occasionally, the weight of the comments are vastly outweighed by a posts number of “likes”… read into that what you will). This interpretation of Slogans however becomes irritating when the artist chooses to produce a statement that is against the sentiments of those particular groups.

from Slogans (2011-Present), 2020
Douglas Coupland

But what is the overall sentiment of this collective? This community of Douglas Coupland commenters on Instagram? And how would one go about assembling and analyzing a large “corpus” of social media comments? I have written a couple of blogs on both topics (assembling and analyzing) that detail some of the pitfalls I ran into when gathering my corpuses—highlighting how some very good, pointed, questions from my peers helped me tighten my sample—and some of the methods I uncovered that could, in theory, be used to analyze the collected corpuses and assist with building a true unified story.

This project should be considered a first step into a much more in-depth project, one that could actually utilize Sentiment Analysis to properly build a narrative for the commenters in Douglas Coupland’s Instagram community. In order to create substantive and manageable corpuses, at the advice of my peers, I hand-copied the individuals comments from a selection of 10 high-volume (40+ comments) Slogans posts on Coupland’s Instagram account. These included:

What follows is a depiction of some of the analyses I performed on the above corpuses (10 individual TXT files for each Slogans posts’ comments) using Voyant Tools, an open-source, web-based application for performing text analysis. The tool is traditionally used in support of scholarly reading and interpretations of large texts / corpuses by scholars in the digital humanities, but the tool proved useful for this project and led to some surprising insights. During a previous trial, I ran my analysis using a single corpus made up of about 1,400 comments taken from the “featured” comments on each of Douglas Coupland’s Slogans posted onto Instagram. The results of that analysis were, at best, quite vague, and I detailed my thoughts on that trial in a blogpost.

Using Cirrus, I was able to see a high-level view of the most used words in the comments. I found an interesting amount of positive language; love was used far more often than hate, like more often than dislike, good more often than bad. Also, based on this wordcloud, people are clearly trying to get Coupland’s attention… his @ and his familiar name “Doug” appear with a surprising amount of frequency… the marker of an account that sees a lot of interaction from real-world friends… or of an an account that has a large amount of commenters stuck in a parasocial relationship. Interestingly, the analysis of these 10 corpuses of 683 total comments from my selection of 10 high-volume (40+ comments) Slogans posts has many similarities to the analysis I ran using a single corpus made up of about 1,400 of the top comments from every Slogan post Coupland has made to date (Dec. 2021). Where there are differences, they are somewhat understandable; “Christmas” occurs a lot in this analysis because one of the Slogans I used is essentially a Christmas post, whereas “vaccine” is surely tied to Slogans related to anti-vaxxer criticism.

from Cirrus, a Voyant Tool
Cirrus is a wordcloud view of the most frequently occuring words in the corpus or document.

The Trends tool highlighted what I saw using Cirrus: the frequency of positive language is much higher across the corpuses compared to that of negative language; but, there is an interesting caveat. The word “love” was used in response to Coupland’s Slogan post I LOVE THE PEOPLE IN MY LIFE far more than in response to any of the other 10 Slogans posts. Upon some tests using other words highlighted with Cirrus, I saw that this was a relatively stable phenomenon: commenters tended to respond to Coupland’s Slogans using language from the Slogan they were responding to.

from Trends, a Voyant Tool
Trends shows a line graph of the relative frequencies across the corpus (for multiple documents) or within a document.

This phenomenon is made even more clear using the Topics tool. I had originally hoped that this tool would show clear new topics that reached beyond individual Slogans posts from my selection of 10 high-volume (40+ comments) Slogans posts… but, what I found was essentially the exact opposite of that desired result. If you look at the Scores next to each topic, you can see that there are significant single spikes that occur on the 10 individual Slogans posts. This means the topic of “bored, i’m, boring, come, chairman, yeah” matches with I’M BORED and “money, barter, toilet, paper, bartering, economy” matches with MONEY’S ALMOST OVER. WHAT REPLACES IT? and so on, and so forth. The texts of the Slogans is thus what appears to be the driver of the conversations within their post’s comments section.

from Topics, a Voyant Tool
Topics performs topic modeling on the corpus or document.

The following snapshot of Voyant Tool’s Summary of my corpuses shows the distinctive words that appear within the comments of each of the individual Slogans posts, or, the words that are most likely to appear within the comments of a particular post. The results genuinely fascinate me as the distinctive words listed here for each post often fell into some of the topics that Voyant Tools created with the Topics tool. This shows that the comments really do appear to be tied more to specific posts than to the Slogans project as a whole (or to anything else).

from Summary, a Voyant Tool
The Summary tool provides general information about the corpus.

I had hoped to show grand unified topics of discussion that ran through the comments of the entirety of Douglas Coupland’s Slogans project on Instagram. While I did not find that, I did stumble upon proof of something that remains quite interesting: Commenters respond to Slogans themselves, the actual text of the art. Commenters provide direct commentary to each work, remix the phrasing, mimic the wording, and supplement the themes under every individual Slogan. This analysis did not prove the sentiment of these commenters… nor did it show any grand unified interests; but, it did provide an interesting, if small, insight into their behavior.

Slogans Over Time & Space