Just what we needed — a sarcasm detector


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 algorithm your way only 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 British 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.

For instance, last week President Barack Obama told a crowd of unsuspecting children that his favorite food was broccoli. Possibly he was being sarcastic himself. I am not sure, as I lack access to the technology. I responded to this news as any red-blooded, clogged-arteried American should: by calling for his impeachment. Broccoli, your favorite food? It would be just barely forgivable to call broccoli your favorite vegetable. But calling broccoli your favorite food is like saying that your favorite computer game is Microsoft Excel. Particularly given that the United States has just lost its pride of place as the world’s most obese country and now ranks behind Mexico, crying for his impeachment is the least anyone can do.

So, naturally, I got an e-mail from a reader pointing out that this was “completely ignorant and stupid” and, furthermore, that “I find it hard to believe that someone would have the audacity to say something like impeaching President Barack Obama over something as silly as broccoli being his favorite food.” After all, “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.)

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 Irish children. (I am not sure what these rich nonverbal cues were in Jonathan Swift’s case. Possibly he wiggled his eyebrows a lot.)

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!


© 2013, The Washington Post

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