Thursday, June 14, 2012

Justin Bieber is a Literary Giant

End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousandsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

That's James Joyce, of course, in Finnegans Wake. Compare with a set of tweets by Justin Bieber:
what the heck is barley water? #london Everyone back home... push #ALLAROUNDTHEWORLD to #1 on ITUNES and #BOYFRIEND back up the chart! WE CAN DO IT!! #AlwaysUnderdogs #muchlove @heidiklum see u and Germany soon LONDON IS CRAZY!! LOVING IT!! Off to Germany tonight. Berlin get ready didnt understand anything you guys were saying but always fun. thanks for having me @chattyman #BIEBERBLAST !!!!
We see the same grand range of time and space, the playful neologisms, the eccentric orthography; it's a celebratory passage. Bieber is darker than Joyce, here. Note the faux naivete, which subtly allows for mockery of English tradition (in the form of a soft drink) and more broadly of English agrarian culture (cf. John Barleycorn). Is Justin Bieber the heir of James Joyce?
The words of noted literary critic Ρяσυ∂Ѕωιfту are compelling: “#ALLAROUNDTHEWORLD PEOPLE WANT @justinbieber 's LOVE!! :P He may never notice me but Imma keep #BIEBERBLASTING the song to #1 on iTunes!!!”
Okay, I'm kidding. I've made all this up. The I write like Web site explicitly warns us that an analysis of tweets is not reliable. (And it actually says that Justin Bieber's tweets are closest to Kurt Vonnegut; I fiddled the output.) That's not to say that the site's analysis of ordinary text is any more reliable. My Alice pastiche is judged to be like Lewis Carroll, and a short science-fiction-ish fragment in my book is supposedly like Ursula K. Le Guin. Should I be pleased? Another passage I wrote is said to be like Cory Doctorow. But when I pasted a Guardian article actually written by Doctorow into the site, it told me that Cory Doctorow writes like H. P. Lovecraft.
But this is just for fun. Serious work can be done in analyzing style in text, and computers can help us do better than airy speculation. Frederick Mosteller and David Wallace produced some of the earliest results that came to public attention, in their statistical analysis of the Federalist papers. 85 articles were published under the name Publius in the late 1700s, by Alexander Hamilton (51 of the articles), James Madison (14), and John Jay (5), with three articles produced by a collaboration between Hamilton and Madison. That leaves 12 articles without a clear attribution. In the 1960s, Mosteller and Wallace carried out several detailed statistical analyses of the unattributed articles, looking for similarities to the attributed articles--were they written by Hamilton or Madison? (Word frequency analysis is still popular today; for example, Hamilton used the word "upon" much more often than Madison.) In the end, all 12 articles were attributed to Madison.
This is of special interest in recent years, because Google has released a tool for analyzing the millions of books it has digitized, books going back to the year 1800. The Ngram Viewer lets you see how the popularity of specific words and phrases has changed over the past couple of centuries. Some scientists have begun to explore the evolution of styles and other information that can be extracted from the historical data; we're seeing the emergence of a new area of scholarly work: the Digital Humanities.

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