Johannes Jonker

I originally wrote this article for the MIH Media Lab blog. View the original here.


For my Honours research project this year, I analysed ways of increasing user participation in blog-based social networks. My case study was Bonfiire, a multi-community network for discussion and debate, that I co-founded with a friend in 2012. Since the public launch of Bonfiire Stellenbosch (our first community, targeted at Stellenbosch University students and alumni) in January 2013, we’ve seen the platform evolve into a vibrant virtual space for the discussion of campus issues. In my research project, I focused specifically on modelling Bonfiire using a system dynamics approach. However, along the way, I’ve stumbled across a number of interesting phenomena that I am very curious to examine further.

One of the things I’ve been wanting to do, is to use text mining to gain insight into the focus and nature of discussion on Bonfiire, as well as the way in which users express themselves. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in large-scale text mining as a means to gaining rich insights from unstructured (i.e. natural language) data sources. Bonfiire presents an interesting case in this regard, because blog posts by users are long (usually three to six paragraphs) and rich (packed with the writer’s sentiment towards and opinion on specific topics).

In this blog post, I’m going to use rudimentary text mining to answer the question: What were the main discussion topics in the months that saw the highest frequency of ‘othering’ words (“they”, “their”, “them”)? The time frame will be January 2013 to October 2014.

The concept of ‘othering’, and measuring it in Bonfiire blog posts

In Wiktionary’s definition, ‘othering’ refers to “the process of perceiving or portraying someone or something as fundamentally different or alien”. ‘Othering’ focuses on emphasising how one, or one’s group, differs from others, through using exclusionary language (“our culture”, “we condone such practices”, “they reject our idea”, “the leader is one of them”) and, in a broader sense, implicitly identifying the ‘other’ in a negative light. This article describes the language of ‘othering’ in greater detail.

Arguably the most rudimentary level at which ‘the other’ is indicated in the English language, is through the use of the words “they”, “their” and “them”, referring to out-groups in the third person. These words can easily be mined in large heaps of text. That is precisely what I intend to do, to measure to what an extent a post may be said to use ‘othering’ language. (Of course, my approach has a number of important limitations. Fear not; I discuss these later on.)

My approach

To do the above, I followed a number of steps:

  1. I parsed the content of all Bonfiire Stellenbosch blog posts in each of the months from January 2013 to October 2014.
  2. I tallied the number of times the above-mentioned ‘othering’ words were used in each blog post, and divided this by the number of blog posts in the given month to obtain the average “othering words per post” number for each month.
  3. I graphed this over time to see trends in the use of the use of ‘othering’ words.
  4. I identified four months of interest, where the number of the ‘othering’ words per post were particularly high.
  5. For each of these months, I extracted the most-used tags (short words added to blog posts as metadata, by the writer) and visualised these in tag clouds.
  6. Finally, I showed each of the tag clouds with the average number of ‘othering’ words per post for the given month, to see if anything interesting pops out.

The results

I’ve created a short slideshow to show the results of the above. Watch it below, but first read these notes:

  • At 00:13, I’ve graphed the number of posts per month over the 22 month period, to serve as context. I’ve also indicated University holidays (December-January; June-July), where the posts per month understandably dip quite a bit, so that we can ignore those in the results.
  • At 00:24, you’ll see the average number of ‘othering’ words per post graphed over time. I’ve indicated the four months of interest. Note that we can ignore July 2014 (“2014-07”), because the number of posts in that (holiday) month was too low to be meaningful.
  • From 00:39 onwards, I show the tag clouds for the four months of interest.

What’s interesting

  • February 2013 had an average of 5.625 ‘othering’ words per post. The biggest discussion topics (according to the number of tags) were “transformation” (discussing transformation at the university) and “src” (discussing the role of the Student Representative Council).
  • October 2013 had an average of 6.625 ‘othering’ words per post. The biggest discussion topics were “#matiesdiversity” (discussing diversity at Stellenbosch, also on the basis of a blogging competition that asked “What does it mean to be a born free?”) and “#i-dont-have-sex” (discussing views on sexuality, on the basis of a related blogging competition).
  • March 2014 had an average of just over 6 ‘othering’ words per post, with big topics being “Human Rights”, “Critical thinking”, “apartheid”, “transformation”, “opinions” and “born free”.
  • October 2014 had nearly 9 ‘othering’ words per post, with the four big topics being “language”, “diversity”, “DOOKOOM” (referring to the artist behind this controversial video) and “Culture”, with “Sex” and “blackface” as further interesting points of discussion.

The catch, and what can be learnt

At this point, before we get too excited about the insights above, I need to add a few disclaimers.

  1. The words I’ve chosen to represent ‘othering’ are naturally very limited; one could expand the choice of words (and perhaps even the types of expressions) that may be classified as ‘othering’ language.
  2. “They”, “their” and “them” aren’t always used to refer to out-groups; they can also be used to refer to abstract concepts and other objects (for example, in this sentence: “human rights form the foundation of society; they preserve constructive human relations and without them we would be lost.”).
  3. Due to time constraints, I haven’t included Afrikaans translations for the above words in my searches. Since a sizeable amount of Bonfiire Stellenbosch’s blog posts are in Afrikaans, it would be interesting to see how the picture changes if we include Afrikaans ‘othering’ words.

Nevertheless, if we take the relationship between months with high numbers of ‘othering’ words and the topics discussed in that month (as depicted through the tags) at face value, it would seem that the topics mentioned above necessitate — or promote — the use of ‘othering’ language. Anecdotally, this seems to make perfect sense for polarising issues where identity is the focus (e.g. transformation, diversity, views of sexuality, language, etc.) and where people will necessarily need to write in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It could be very interesting to supplement these quantitative indicators with a qualitative examination of blog post content in the months of interest.

Holistically speaking, I am surprised at how such a rudimentary indicator as the average number of ‘othering’ words per post, when brought into view of the actual topics of discussion, can yield relatively interesting results. If anything, I think this illustrates — albeit at a very superficial level — how text mining can serve as point of departure for further qualitative analyses.

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For the past three (and a bit) years, I’ve had the massive privilege of receiving a university education. I’ve studied fascinating subjects, attended thought-provoking talks, met intriguing people, been exposed to compelling perspectives on matters hitherto unknown to me, and engaged with the sometimes wonderful, sometimes exasperating complexity of life and humanity.

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At the end of my first year of tertiary study — 2011 — I bought an iPad. Up to that point, I’d taken notes in class with a pen and paper, I’d printed (some) class handouts, I’d organized everything in large ring binders and I’d bought prescribed books from a local bookstore. All this, combined with the fact that I really (really) like minimalism, had left me looking for a simpler, more integrated learning solution — and preferably a paperless one. 

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This article is part of a series I wrote for the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Stellenbosch University, on the topic of how students can utilize ICTs for academic success.

It’s safe to say that every university student will write at least one written piece (essay, report, etc.) requiring referencing during his/her time as student. It’s also safe to say that mentioning the word “referencing” to most of these students will, at the very least, make their smiles drop or, in a worst-case scenario, lead to them running away, screaming and wildly swinging their arms in the air.

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While many students are already aware of this offer, a surprising number of people I spoke to had not yet heard about it.

It turns out there really is such a thing as a free lunch, apparently. This time round, it’s on Stellenbosch University and Microsoft. And it looks really delicious.

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Near the end of 2011, I bought myself an Apple iPad 2 (16GB, WiFi). Large files of class notes and stacks of textbooks had put me on a quest  to go ‘paperless’ on my studies; the iPad seemed like the perfect vehicle for this quest. Accordingly, the iPad has truly revolutionized my study experience. The key to this revolution lies in choosing the right apps – a somewhat difficult task if one considers that the iOS App Store now contains well over 200 000 apps. With this post, therefore, I’m going to highlight the apps that currently play a big role in enhancing my studies. I’ll keep the list updated as I find new and better apps. Also, I’ve included some tips that have helped me put the iPad to even better use in my studies.

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After an extended period of only blogging on Tumblr (and limiting my blog posts to creative musings and attempted poetry), I’ve extended my main website to include a WordPress-powered blog. I’ll be using this space to do some more serious writing and write-ups of travels/events. One of my first posts will be on how students can utilize Apple’s iPad to revolutionalize studying.

Watch this space.

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Die hemelruim se sterreprag
waak oor ‘n slapende landskap
van koppies, randjies en amperse berge
en die liggies van rustige lewenswyses
wat plek-plek in die donkerte flikker.

‘n Paddakoor sing klik-klik
in verbroke harmonie tussen die riete
van die dam-hier-digby
terwyl ‘n eensame uil melankolies sug
en die vreedsaamheid beaam.

In die sagte geruis van die briesie
fluister die verbeeldingstem:
Hierdie wêreld ken nie die konstante gedruis
van ambisie en materialisme en liefdeloosheid nie.
Hier is jou rykdom vrede
en jou lafenis rus.

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plekke bewonder
mense dophou
atmosfere inneem

ervarings her-leef
emosies her-voel
idees her-dink

om te mis wie jy nie ken nie
om liefde self lief te hê
om dankbaar te wees vir lewe

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