To Serve Man- Social Listening Conundrums

“Mr. Chambers, don’t get on the spaceship! The rest of the book, To Serve Man, it’s a cookbook!” Who can forget the infamous ending to the Twilight Zone adaption of Damon Knight’s humorously dark short story. The people of Earth take peace in believing that the alien book bestowed upon them is called ‘To Serve Man” thinking that the title is a mantra meant to help serve humanity. Little did they know that the contents of the rest of the book suggested something quite the opposite.


However, the Twilight Zone characters aren’t the only one’s who suffer from an inability to understand a phrase in it’s greater context; machine learning algorithms fall short everyday.

There are a number of real-time and lexical limitations that stand in the way of automating the semantic curation process of social media commentary.

Let’s look at an example. Say we wanted to put together some advanced Boolean search queries to collect chatter about the Chicago Bears.

People talk about the Chicago Bears in a number of different ways. @Mentions, #Hashtags, direct mentions, referencing the stadium, coaches, managers, players, opponents, etc. Let’s focus on the query directly related to finding comments about ‘the bears’.

If we were to search for ‘the bears’ as a standalone term, the relevancy of the comments pulled in would vary depending on a number of factors. Is football in season? Do the Bears have a game today? Are comments being pulled only from the greater Chicago area? Is there breaking news about the bears at the Zoo or perhaps a recent bear attack? Perhaps there’s a really hilarious YouTube video going viral that is about a couple of bears? What about references to the 80s band, The Bears?

Location, time, breaking news, existence of other brands with the same name, and colloquial use all impact the relevancy of searching for ‘the bears’ as a standalone term. The context of a comment outside of the phrase itself is rather important in determining it’s relevancy to the football team. Although there is room to fine tune these search queries once we believe we have accounted for all the possible ways ‘the bears’ can be mentioned in social media, there is always the chance that the algorithms will break down in light of some unforeseen factor. In fact, the human element to social media content curation at scale is more essential than machine learning scientists would like you to believe.

Although social media at it’s best is served up like delicate hors d’oeuvres; in petite, rich, and appealing tidbits. Let’s head Rod Sterling’s advice and pay attention to the greater context of the phrase before we end up as ‘an ingredient in someones soup’.

Living at the Edge of Your Abilities

Aristotle believed the virtuous man lives with all aspects of his character in perfect harmony, nestled at that ever so perfect distance between the polar vices of excess and deficiency.

Take a peek.

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle … anyone can get angry – that is easy – or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.”

We are all born with a set of unique and innate characteristics which fall a little bit in excess for one quality and a little bit in deficiency for another. Society helps us mask these imperfections of virtue by using shrewd vernacular. We have come to understand ‘shyness’ or ‘assertiveness’ as unique virtues of character instead of something we should strive to overcome.

But there is something to be said for the soul that lives intentionally at the edge of his or her abilities. The one who fights against his or her natural dispositions in an effort to correct that innate imbalance of character.

The introvert enrolling in public speaking classes. The salesman taking a 3 day solo hike to read Thoreau. With dogged persistence in challenging your imposed limits of consciousness and ability, something magical happens.

You break free and own your life. You can suddenly do things you never thought you could do. You’ve developed a bipartisan understanding of the world, you are no longer held back by your weakness’ because you’ve trained them to become strengths. You become one of the few who understand one of the secrets of life- you are more than what you find yourself to be today and you have the power to design that future.

Pretty cool. So basically, do something that scares you each day, be outside yourself, and live at the edge of your abilities.

“Your greatest self has been waiting your whole life; don’t make it wait any longer.”
― Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free