The Center offers funding for proposals that align with our mission: working to advance theoretical or applied research in the social sciences using advanced computational approaches, including human language technologies and data science. The goal of seed funding is to support pilot research that will lead to future grant proposals or research publications, as well as to support dissertation research that advances CCDS goals.

We are excited to showcase the research of iSchool PhD candidate Jennifer Sonne. Sonne’s goal is to better understand the complexities and influences of affect and emotions on work and technology. Her research interests include affect and emotion, gender, technology, web and social media, and affective computing. Sonne received her MLIS from Drexel University, concentrating in Competitive Intelligence & Knowledge Management. Before beginning her Ph.D. journey, Sonne was a Web Designer for Rutgers University-Camden.

Sonne explains that she is fascinated by how emotions are translated and transferred through computer-mediated communication (CMC). At the surface, it seems obvious that CMC messages carry affective tonality, such as excitement, confusion, sadness, fear, etc. However, less obvious is how those messages are perceived and interpreted by the recipient. Current understanding of emojis suggests that emojis help reduce ambiguity in messages and/or change the affective tone of the message. For example, a smiley face might increase certainty that the message is positive whereas a winking face might decrease certainty of the message’s affective valence, in that it might denote irony or sarcasm but also might denote an inside joke or flirtation.

Sonne’s research project consists of a survey of 195 Amazon Mechanical Turkers who were asked to read three scenarios and answer a series of questions related to their emotional responses and emoji preferences. Each scenario was designed to elicit a specific affective tone: one elicited sadness, one elicited happiness, and one elicited a mixture of competitive friendliness. Theoretically, this study draws on the social information processing theory and emotions as social information (EASI) model to understand the relationship of emojis and emotional support in computer-mediated communication (CMC). This study’s findings corroborate previous research, in that people use emojis to help amplify the informational and emotional content of CMC. Furthermore, the findings suggest that participants feel more certain about choosing emojis in relation to the emotions of sadness and happiness, and feel less certain about choosing emojis in relation to mixed emotions. The findings from this study extend the social information processing theory as well as the EASI model, thus further illuminating how our emotions impact our social lives in digital environments.

Sonne notes that she was surprised by how much Amazon Mechanical Turk has become an economic ecosystem for the people who complete tasks within the system. Sonne used Amazon Mechanical Turk in 2014, but feels that the people on it now are much different from those who completed the survey she conducted four years ago. One difference is that they were much more communicative in the 2018 survey – multiple people directly emailed Sonne with different questions, concerns, and thoughts about the survey – whereas Sonne hadn’t received any emails from the 2014 survey.

Sonne’s research relates to the goals of CCDS as one of the most complex but under-researched areas in computational and data science is affect. Affect is one of the integral components that makes humans (and indeed, almost all animals) social, and affect is the foundation upon which motivation and behavior is built. Therefore, this research project takes one step toward better understanding how affect is represented in online interactions. The funding Sonne received allowed her to conduct the MTurk survey, so without this necessary funding the research would not have been

completed. Sonne submitted her findings to a special issue of a journal using the results of this research project (currently under review), noting that it was a wonderful opportunity that would not have been possible had it not been for the CCDS funding.

Sonne is currently working on her dissertation proposal, which has been strongly informed by the results of this project. Studying emotions online continues to become more challenging and more rewarding as she delve deeper into this complex research area, so Sonne plans to continue this research through her dissertation.

When asked what recommendations or words of wisdom she would pass on to others pursuing seed funding, Sonne said: “This was such a positive experience from many angles. I think that pursuing seed funding such as provided by CCDS is a great opportunity for PhD students to engage in independent scholarship. I received such helpful and relevant feedback from CCDS which has certainly honed my skills as an academic. In addition, I presented a research-in-progress talk through CCDS which gave my research project better visibility in our school and brought our interdisciplinary community of faculty and students together in ways that helped bridge our many interests.”