Friends You Haven’t Met Yet: A Documentary and Research project

Project Leader: Andrew S. Gordon

“Friends You Haven’t Met Yet” is a documentary short film that chronicles encounters between extremely prolific bloggers and a computer scientist who uses their personal narratives for research. It explores issues related to public sharing of personal stories, the ethical obligations of researchers who use web data, and the changing nature of online privacy.

The Narrative group at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies is engaged in an innovative project to gather and analyze millions of personal stories that people post to their public weblogs.

The group built software that has analyzed every English-language weblog post looking for personal stories – the nonfiction narrations of people’s everyday life experiences, no matter how mundane or extraordinary. Analyzing over a billion posts, they have pulled out 30 million personal stories thus far.

These stories have been used for a variety of research efforts, including:

  • A study of gender differences in the experience of having a stroke, evidenced by hundreds of stroke stories
  • A study of the ways that people tell value-laden stories about emotional experiences, which were subsequently used as stimuli in neuroimaging (fMRI) studies of narrative impact
  • The use of millions of stories of everyday life as a knowledge base for artificial intelligence, enabling machines to reason about causality
  • Interactive storytelling systems where humans and computers collaboratively author new fictional stories, where the computer borrows from millions of nonfiction stories
  • A methodology for training Army soldiers by telling them pertinent stories from civilians who engage in analogous tasks and skills

The team identified hundreds of people who post personal stories to their weblogs nearly every day, and have been doing so for many years and had a number of questions for these prolific bloggers.

  • What motivates these people to post so frequently and publicly about their personal life?
  • To what degree do these people embellish their stories to make them more interesting than reality?
  • What expectations do these authors have about their readers, and what are the ethical implications for researchers like us who analyze their posts?

To answer these questions, they contacted many of these bloggers directly and set up face-to-face interviews at their homes. This sort of ethnography is common in the social sciences, but very unusual for computer scientists. USC  Ph.D. student Christopher Wienberg conducted these interviews at locations all around California, in both urban and rural settings.

They took the additional unusual step of partnering with a documentary film crew, who accompanied Wienberg on his journeys. Psychic Bunny, an LA-based media company, filmed each of the interviews, and produced this documentary short film. It has been submitted to numerous film festivals and will be shown at academic conferences.

This film was produced as part of the research project “Authoring Realistic Learning Environments with Stories (ARLES),” led by Andrew S. Gordon at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, funded by the Army Research Office.

Andrew S. Gordon, Ph.D.
Research Associate Professor of Computer Science
Institute for Creative Technologies and USC Viterbi School of Engineering
University of Southern California

Christopher Wienberg
PhD Student, Computer Science
Institute for Creative Technologies and USC Viterbi School of Engineering
University of Southern California

Documentary filmmakers
Jesse Vigil, writer and director
Asa Shumskas Tait, executive producer
Psychic Bunny, Inc.