Our AI analyses the magic of Modern Love
Updated: Sep 18
As an AI-driven consumer research company, our mission is to understand human nature at scale. With a diverse, international and interdisciplinary team of data scientists and culture researchers, we spend a lot of our time helping clients understand more about various ways people are behaving, and the ways they are responding to cultural contexts and shifting norms.
Today, we study Love. More specifically, we set out to answer this question: What is it about The New York Times’ Modern Love column that keeps people reading? Now in its 16th year, the Modern Love series has only risen in popularity, giving rise to podcast episodes of it, and a Modern Love TV series as well.
In an interview last year, Modern Love editor Daniel Jones explains the function of this series as such:
It provides an intimacy, and a sense of connection and empathy. Having someone be so vulnerable on the page and also come to understand something about their relationship — there just seems to be such a hunger for that kind of voice and that kind of storytelling [...]
Our relationships are the most important things in our lives [...] These days, I think the column has more service and impact than ever. It just feels like a little escape.
From this, we see the intentions behind creating Modern Love - that it’s meant to offer respite from the let-downs and ugliness we see in the world today. But what exactly is it about the pieces that keeps readers coming back for more, and how does Modern Love establish a sense of connection and empathy?
We ran tens of thousands of words of Modern Love text - a mix of over 30 stories comprising full-length essays and paragraphs from the Tiny Love Stories series- through our Culture AI. Here are some interesting things we found.
What are the Emotions of Modern Love?
Our Emotion AI analysis revealed that the top three emotions across the pieces were more negative than positive. In first place was Sadness, which was detected 40% more frequently than Happiness, the second highest emotion. 5% less than Happiness was Fear.
This suggests to us that it is vulnerability that makes these stories appealing to us. It’s one thing to be able to write a happy love story, but another matter entirely when it comes to writing about sad, fearful times elegantly.
The writers’ willingness to show weakness through discussing their low moments in love paint a realistic picture of Love — showing that while happy times do form a significant part of the modern day love story, every story is bound to have a few unhappy chapters, and that should be acknowledged too.
Unlike fairy tales and romcoms which present relationships through rose-tinted glasses, Modern Love makes it clear that relationships aren’t always dream-like, too-good-to-be-true experiences. Writing about the imperfections of love empathetically connects with readers.
Remembering the past: Is nostalgia bittersweet, or just plain bitter?
We saw that in love, Hindsight isn’t pleasant.
Our Culture AI analysis showed that the word ‘Retrospect’ held a high negative sentiment. Our AI ranks words as being positive or negative, and also detects the degree to which they realise that positivity or negativity. It grades these words based on a scale of -1 to 0 for negativity (with -1 being the most negative), and 0 to 1 for positivity.
At -0.7, ‘Retrospect’ was at the same rank of high negativity as words like ‘Pain’, ‘loss’ and ‘grief’. This showed us that hindsight and memory work was not ambivalently half-happy half-sad in any way — not bittersweet, but full-blown bitter. More importantly, it showed us that retrospect was also felt at the same degree as stronger emotions like pain, loss, and grief.
Adjectives Analysis: Words we use when we talk about love...
Our language analysis also revealed to us the top words used across different word classes. From the word cloud of top adjectives used, we expectedly see words like “romantic”, “good” and “right”, but also see words like “angry”, “uncomfortable” and “strange” - words that do not usually have positive associations.
These all the more so make clear the realness of Modern Love columns in representing relationships: love is right, love is romantic, but it is also ugly.
What can this teach us about building rapport with an audience?
The prose of Modern Love shows us that acknowledging things not being glossy and perfect all the time helps in crafting authentic narratives.
To a hyper-critical, hyper-cynical, and hyper-real 21st century audience, storytelling endears when it sticks true to the plot - no censoring of the unpleasant chapters. The popularity of Modern Love shows us that we like our fairy tales imperfect.
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