The 20th century misery index was the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate. In 1982, Canada's inflation rate stood at 10.9 percent,while unemployment was at 11.0 percent, for a 21.9 percent misery index. 2009, with inflation of 0.3 percent and unemployment of 8.3 percent, didn't even come close by old-style misery index measures.
Yet, as recent commentators on this blog have passionately argued, this generation's misery is real too: "This recession isn't a short, sharp shock. It's a long, drawn out constant torture that wears you down".
Clearly we need a 21st century misery index. And where better to look than that 21st century catalogue of misery, www.fmylife.com?
On Fmylife.com, readers submit portraits of empty loveless lives, tales of betrayal, abandonment, failure and disappointment, or snapshots of injustice:
Today, I saw an elderly man fall in a crosswalk, so I jumped off my bike to help. As I helped him across, the light turned green. I then watched across a 6 lane street as someone stole my bike. FML
Other stories reflect current economic realities. October, 2008: Today, my bank lost 5 billion. FML. December, 2010: Today, it was my first day on a $600 a week job. I was fired for being 10 minutes late. FML.
Wouldn't it be possible, by tracking the number of economic-despair type posts over time, and comparing that to the number of I-flushed-my-cellphone-down-the-toilet type posts and the my-partner-is-cheating-on-me posts, to measure the contribution of economic hardship to human misery?
Using fmylife to construct a misery index is not so far fetched. Johan Bollen, Huina Mao, and Xiao-Jun Zeng have used Twitter postings to predict stock market changes. Individual tweets are analyzed using a program developed by the researchers, the Google Profile of Mood States. This tool associates words with six moods, Calm, Alert, Sure, Vital, Kind, and Happy. The mood of the twitter universe is then gauged by the number of calm/not calm words used, the number of happy/unhappy words used, etc. (OpinionFinder, free LINUX software that does a similar thing, can be found here, real-time opinion analysis of stock-market trends can be found at http://www.opfine.com/).
Bollen et al's work has been criticized on the grounds that there is no plausible mechanism linking tweeting and trading - and reading their paper I can see that there are some weaknesses in the exposition. Yet the national economy is comprised of millions of individuals' economic experiences. It seems reasonable that knowing one's business is doing well would generate calmness now and good stock market outcomes in the future. Is that any more far-fetched than Warren Buffet's preferred indicator: freight car loadings?
I haven't yet figured out an easy way to gather the data necessary to test the fmylife misery index against other measures of gloom: unemployment, unhappiness, and so on. Moreover, given the potential profitability of such data-mining exercises, much of the software developed is, understandably, not available for free download.
But now I have a legitimate scientific excuse for at least one of my on-line vices.