Over the break, I had some free time to build a quick site called AdjectApproval, a play on the phrase “abject disapproval”.  Instead of the connotation of something very sternly and harshly offensive, AdjectApproval plays on the phrase as finding approval and verification and identity using adjectives and descriptors.

When you go to AdjectApproval, you’re prompted with a list of descriptors and then must guess what you think those words are referring to.  Do they describe a person, a brand, a company, or what?  There is a hint button, which will give you the tribe and gender of the unknown object, if available.

If a set of adjectives seems to yield correct answers often, then we can assume that they’re more useful than a set that yields incorrect answers.  But then you should be able to add more adjectives if you guess wrong, and this should improve accuracy over time.

You can also look in the left column, where you can add your own people or things.  There’s a list of random current events names and personalities that you can enter adjectives for, as well.  If you click on “full list of descriptions” at the top, that page will show you everything that’s been added to the database.

Eventually I want to track which adjectives are used to describe men, women, and brands, and pull some natural language processing on that stuff.

Basically AdjectApproval was intended to experiment with the problem we have when we can’t remember someone’s name, or when we have to describe someone to someone else.  What words do we use to describe someone as efficiently as possible, so we’re not stuck explaining who the person is for twenty minutes?  What words would immediately cause someone to say, “OH!  You mean so-and-so!”?

I was also interested in this because, just as attempts to quantify and qualify peoples’ identities, I think there’s a massive disconnect between how people perceive themselves and how both those close to them, and complete strangers perceive them.  The measurement of the difference between these perceptions is the margin of error, or the variability of someone’s perceived character.  This margin can be used by some people to steal and lie and cheat.  This margin can also be the cause of severe insecurity of people in social settings, as they perceive everyone to be judging them, when in fact other people may not even be thinking about them at all.  This margin fascinates me.

In the course of building the small project, I realized that the most useful descriptors are often the most socially offensive.  This seems interesting because it suggests that we will censor our descriptions of the world if we are in company where it might offend.  Describing someone as “fat” or “anorexic” or “ugly” or “hook-nosed” or “cankles” is really offensive in most company, but it might cause someone, who knows which tribe or social group this person is a member of, to guess the right person immediately!  Would we be better-served if we were just brutally honest about our perspectives?  Or is this a price too large to bear compared to the benefits of social niceties?

I also learned that adjectives are too confining; we often can describe people in multiple ways: nicknames, profession, catchphrases, their favorite possessions, their familial links, names of things they’ve created, etc.  This seems to invite more of a vocabulary of marketing and branding, since you’re basically dealing with building a brand, or using something like the literary device of metonymy. (e.g. “The White House” as metonymy for the executive branch of the federal government, or for the President)

I built AdjectApproval using PHP, MySQL, jQuery, and jQueryUI.  It’s definitely not bug-free and I’m going to have to restructure the CSS and make it far more intuitive, with better guidance and feedback messages.  The styling is pretty poor and inconsistent.