Website tracks "colourful" mood swings

Users record their moods with words and colours, letting them keep track of their feelings over time and allow friends and family to stay updated on their moods

On December 12, at 2:41 am, Ph.D. student Ian Li of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. was feeling miserable and sleepy. The computer science student was in the midst of a three-paper marathon and not having fun.

Almost 12 hours later, Li was sleepy and relieved. He was done writing papers for the day. But his emotions — represented by a few words and bands of color — were up on the World Wide Web in perpetuity for his friends to see.

Li is the primary creator of MoodJam, a website on which users record their moods with words and colours, letting them keep track of their feelings over time and allow friends and family to stay updated on their moods. Li, a student at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII), has lured 2,000 users to the site, and is considering a research project examining which colours people associate with certain moods and whether the sharing of moods in this fashion can have an impact on personal relationships.

“The ultimate goal would be to allow people to become more personally aware of their moods, but also at the same time to be able to share their moods with friends and family,” Li says in a phone interview.

The project began a year ago as a collaboration of about nine students trying to devise an application allowing people to keep track of each other’s moods. They examined psychology literature and considered a restricted approach in which people would be given choices like “pleasure or displeasure.” But when the site went live in November they had decided to let users describe their moods with any words or colours they wanted.

MoodJam is simple: you scroll over a palette of colours, choose one, and then write a few words to describe your mood. The free association inherent in MoodJam means the colour blue, for example, can be associated with any mood, despite the common connotation linking “blue” to sadness. And users can describe moods with any words that pop into their heads, no matter how zany. Li considers it a “visual diary.”

“You don’t have to pick happy or sad,” says HCII research associate Aubrey Shick, who recently joined the MoodJam project. “You can pick caffeinated, you can pick broccoli. … You can pick whatever you want.”

MoodJam lets users choose from the 216 “web-safe” colors, which are all red, green, blue or some mixture of shades of the three.

People can share their moods with friends by telling them the username they use to log onto MoodJam.

“I have friends in Seattle and sometimes I might be having a bad day, and they all have access to my MoodJam,” Shick says. “If my MoodJam is particularly strange, they’ll IM (instant message) me and say ‘wow, your MoodJam is really strange today.’”

Shick thinks keeping track of one’s emotions in this way can help keep a balanced perspective of life. If you have a great morning followed by a terrible afternoon, you might say “Oh, I had an awful day,” she says. But looking back at what you recorded on MoodJam would remind you of the great morning you had.

“It grounds you and gives you a little more perspective into how your life is going,” she says.

A “gadget” version of MoodJam which can be installed on a personal home page won two awards at the inaugural Google Gadget Awards, a student competition, according to Carnegie Mellon.

Li wants to upgrade the site so people can form groups, making it easier to keep tabs on how people in their social circle are feeling. He also wants to provide the capability for people to comment on friends’ moods.

His main challenge right now, he says, is fine-tuning a research project based on the site.

“We’re trying to come up with research questions, such as what colours do people associate with their moods?” he says. “Another question is how is this impacting people’s social networks?”

The latter question could be answered with controlled studies in which people use the site for a month and then report on whether it had any impact on their relationships with others, according to Li.

Shick has another idea. If data from the site shows a person associates a certain colour with a particularly good mood, that person could receive a recommendation to increase the colour’s presence in his or her life. MoodJam’s influence, then, would extend into the realm of interior decorating.

“We’ll be able to make recommendations, and say ‘these colours are associated with happiness,’” Shick says.

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