Was This August Actually The Worst Month Ever?

War, disease, riot gear: This August has felt terrible. Fast Company consults the data.

This month, the United States authorized airstrikes in Iraq. Video footage of a journalist’s brutal execution circulated through social media networks. War raged between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and the death toll in Gaza escalated. A policeman fatally shot an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown, whose death incited protests and more violence. About 1,500 people died in one of the largest Ebola outbreaks in history. Robin Williams, who usually makes us laugh, took his own life.

This month really, really sucked.

It was a buffet of tragedies that made even those of us lucky enough to escape personal harm want to curl up in a corner, someplace far away from Twitter feeds and 24-hour-a-day news channels, and have a good cry.

It definitely felt worse than usual.

But was it?

To get some perspective on the matter, Fast Company asked some data types for information—and according to social media analysis firm General Sentiment, it’s not all in our heads. The company tracks mentions of 170 million topics across Twitter, public Facebook posts, news media comment sections, blogs, and other sites. In order to get a sense of how we’ve been feeling about current events over the past year, it looked at sentiment around mentions of the term “news” (about 4.1 million of them).

Here’s what it found:

Negative numbers in the table correspond with negative sentiment, and positive numbers correspond with positive sentiment. | Click to expandGraph: via General Sentiment

Negative numbers in the table correspond with negative sentiment, and positive numbers correspond with positive sentiment. Compared to every other month throughout the past year, sentiment around the news has been most negative this August (January is a close second). This August’s “news” also incurred the most negative sentiment compared to the Augusts of previous years going back to 2011.

It’s not a perfect measurement. It includes, for instance, mentions of organizations like The Daily News that have the word “news” in their names (though sentiment around those mentions, General Sentiment says, are mostly neutral). This analysis was also completed before the end of this August, so this month’s sample size, though large, is not completely identical to that of previous months. And no social media analysis includes every post.

In a separate attempt to define whether or not this month actually felt worse than usual, social media monitoring and analytics company Sysomos looked at 14.4 billion tweets in August 2013 and 11.8 billion tweets in August 2014 (through August 27) and compared their sentiment:

August 2013
14% negative
41% positive
45% neutral

August 2014 (through August 27)
16% negative
39% positive
45% neutral

This data encompasses no specific keyword or topic, but rather anything that is said on Twitter. Chatter seems to have been slightly more negative this month as compared to the same time last year. Which makes the next batch of data seem surprising: Sysomos searched for mentions of “worst month” and “month from hell.” Here's what it found:

August 2014: 2,870
July 2014: 2,372
June 2014: 3,129
May 2014: 3,933
April 2014: 3,735
March 2014: 4,763
February 2014: 4,649
January 2014: 6,572
August 2013: 6,213

Though we might be feeling less happy about the news this August and expressing more thoughts negatively in general, it seems like we haven’t been complaining about it as much as we have in previous months.

There are, of course, many reasons to declare your month “the worst” that have nothing to do with an unbearable swirl of world-impacting tragedies. Perhaps, like a Twitter user named Rylee, you think August is “like the worst month because there’s nothing to do and you’re just waiting for school to start” or you’re actually talking about January. There are also many possible reasons for the trend of "worst month" mentions to decline. Maybe people are less inclined to talk about how bad their personal months are when it is so easy to find examples of people who are clearly having a much worse month. Maybe they're just talking about the weather.

Social media analysis can only go so far in helping us declare this the worst month of 2014. According to General Sentiment, we’ve been speaking more negatively about the news this month than we have over the last year. According to Sysomos, we are speaking slightly more negatively on Twitter than we were in last August, but we are using the phrase “worst month” far less.

This month is definitely worse than usual if you’re the stock market. Or the Toronto Blue Jays' winning percentage. Or the president. Or someone who just thinks August is always terrible. But for an average news-consuming human?

For that, you're probably best off with personal sentiment analysis (which you can consider once you've uncurled yourself from the fetal position). But still, September can't come fast enough.

[Photo: Flickr user Bob Bob]

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