Color me [adjective]

It began with Open Diary. Xanga and LiveJournal showed up soon after. Then, the big ones: MySpace and Facebook.

Generation Y was the first age group to grow up with the Internet as an integral part of daily life, not to mention daily emotions. It was the first to log on to AOL Instant Messenger, the first to blog, and, if Ian Li and his team of programmers have gauged this generation correctly, Generation Y will have one more notch on its belt: It’ll be the first generation to use computers to express emotions through color.

Welcome to MoodJam.org. Dubbed “Prettiest Gadget” by the Google Gadget Awards, My MoodJam gives users the chance to display their emotions through color. Once users register, they simply choose the color or colors that represent their moods at a given time, add one or more adjectives, and click “Post.” Instantly, the screen displays a band of color(s) that expresses what the user is feeling. Users can also share their MoodJam pages by giving their friends and family their MoodJam usernames. Each username is linked to a webpage that can be accessed by anyone — registered or not.

A team of three Carnegie Mellon students, Karen Tang, Scott Davidoff, and Li, developed MoodJam at Carnegie Mellon’s Human Computer Interaction Institute. The website has been growing in popularity since it won the Google award. Currently, it has 2500 registered users with about 200 posts daily.

“It’s like making a mood painting.”

Originally, the group members created the website so that they could become more aware of each other’s moods in their small work environment. “The idea initially wasn’t to use the Internet,” said Li, a member of the team. “One of the ideas was to use a projection, like a display that everyone in the group could see. The idea was to come up with something quick and easy.”

“We had one way of expressing it with faces. At one point, people could select random images that expressed emotion,” added Scott Davidoff, another team member. “But the color one... there’s just something that’s beautiful about it. There are a lot of faces that you can put on the data, but the current one is the most usable one.”

Looking at the site, there are some expected color combinations (“sleepy” with dark brown, etc.), though many are more interesting. For example, one user linked the phrase “angry, alone, and strong” with the intense colors of white, blood red, and black. That’s not to say that the site is only used to express feelings easily diagnosed as either positive or negative. “Last week, the mood ‘banana’ was really popular,” Davidoff said. “One of the things that I think we’ve noticed is the huge variety of things that qualify as a mood that you might not have thought people would say. ‘Arm.’ ‘Boot.’ They don’t really fit in to any scientific definition of what moods mean.” The words that people use are completely up to them; people can basically say whatever they feel, even if it’s not an adjective; it’s the color that makes it universal. “It [the color] really expresses something someone can experience.”

Contrary to what some might expect, there aren’t specific colors associated with any of the moods. “People put colors and some put a jumble of colors.... It seems to be pretty idiosyncratic what colors people associate with a particular mood,” Li said. “Looking at it as a whole, it looks like a big jumble of colors, but the color is a good motivator for them to influence their moods.” For instance, according to Li, a page full of dark, dreary colors over a day or a week can help a person realize that he or she is going through a depressed stage.

Although the MoodJam team believes that seeing a pattern of feelings might lead to a change in behavior, others disagree. “In a broad way, disclosing information about patterns can be part of the process of changing behavior, but I don’t think expressing a color palette on a website would be the sole inspiration,” said Phillip Quinque, a visiting psychology professor.

Regardless of whether or not it is helpful to see patterns, the option is always available to users. The data is never deleted and there is no tool through which a “bad day” can be taken off the user’s page. “Maybe, eventually, some people may not be comfortable with that,” Li said, “but so far, it’ll be stored forever.”

Mental health professionals often encourage patients to keep track of their changes in mood. Doctors call this process journaling. “MoodJam is certainly a novel tool that a person could employ to self-monitor and look back, almost [as] if they’re journaling,” Quinque said. “In psychology, the use of journaling and the therapeutic letter has been used for years. [MoodJam] could be a fun way to look at a person’s mood — through color.”

According to the team, the enjoyability and ease of the site are what make it appealing. “I think part of the fun of doing it is just that we made a really nice, short way to express yourself,” said Davidoff. “Doing that — in lots of psychology studies they’ve just shown that it makes you feel better.” The team hasn’t done studies yet on whether MoodJam accomplishes the same goal, given that the phrases used in MoodJam are much shorter than a journal entry; however Davidoff believes that it allows the same therapeutic relief as journaling. “We’ve made a way to express yourself without writing,” he continued, “or just a very terse, set way to express yourself emotively. It’s like making a mood painting.”

“Looks like we’re feeling grumpy in the lab today…”

Although sites like MoodJam, where users express their feelings through the Internet, are now considered commonplace, some worry about whether these sites encourage unhealthy relationships. “If an individual begins to believe that just expressing a color palette is [a] healthy substitute for human interaction, it becomes a ‘danger,’ so to speak,” Quinque said. “There’s no ‘danger’ with a human disclosing emotion with another human being. That’s part of developing healthy relationships and managing one’s emotions.”

Still, many are in favor of online expression. According to the MoodJam team, the site actually encourages communication among friends. At a university where students monitor each

other’s online activities almost as much as their own, the Internet is used as a tool for connecting friends, not strangers. Li said, “If you know someone is happy or grumpy, you have something to start a conversation with.”

Aubrey Shick, a collaborator on the MoodJam project, agreed that the site is a positive social tool. “I’ll have people IM me because my MoodJam is off. If anything, it’s supporting additional conversation,” she said. To this end, the team is planning on unveiling user groups within MoodJam so that groups of people can create pages together and easily access the pages of friends. The group scoffed at the suggestion that this idea could minimize conversation between friends. “If anything, it’ll probably support [conversation],” Shick said.
“ ‘Looks like we’re feeling grumpy in the lab today — let’s do something about it. Let’s order donuts.’ ”

Even for friends who are not physically close, Shick believes that MoodJam can still help with maintaining a relationship. Citing a personal experience, Shick explained that she recently helped create a MoodJam page for a friend studying abroad. “She’s in a foreign country, speaking a second language, and she has been really alienated,” Shick said, “and [MoodJam] has made her feel like people are paying attention to her emotions and care about her.”

“Only time will tell.”

Facebook, MySpace, Xanga... MoodJam? There’s no predicting whether or not MoodJam will make it to the bookmarks page of Generation Y. However, there are certain things to keep in mind when using any program for online journaling or blogging. According to Quinque, it’s important not to worry too much about the emotions themselves; worry about why they’re there. As he put it, “I don’t think you can be too in touch with your emotions, but it is possible to ruminate over an emotion and stay stuck with the emotion rather than understanding the origins of it.” One example, Quinque explained, is a phrase familiar to the Carnegie Mellon campus: “I’m tired.” Saying “I’m tired” without paying attention to why will do nothing to remedy the exhaustion.

Moreover, websites like MoodJam may prove dangerous for younger users. Quinque explained that online expression can lead to a slippery slope for teenagers going through emotional crises before they’ve emotionally matured. “In the past two years, I’ve seen some issues and problems emerge, particularly with MySpace, that some adolescents are expressing some kind of self-destructive and unhealthy desires which then influence other people,” Quinque said. “They become influenced by other peoples’ websites with unsafe self-destructive behaviors such as sexual behavior and drug use.” Unfortunately, these websites, which encourage negative behavior, are some of the most popular among developing teenagers.

Despite this, Quinque believes that there are some positive aspects to MoodJam and its peers. “I believe there’s potential for [such websites] to be helpful and harmful,” he said. “It’s always a matter of degree; if a person can strike a healthy balance and employ them to get more introspective, they can be a healthy adjunct.”

Still, a person can only rely on the Internet to a certain extent. According to Quinque, if the balance between the real world and the virtual world is lost, online emoting can become unhealthy. However, he continued, there’s a limited amount of information available on the risks associated with online expression. “Certainly, it opens the door to see what happens with people over the course of time. Even with MySpace, I’ve seen some positive things and some healthy things,” Quinque said. “Only time will tell.”