The Gulf Tower beacon will reflect positive and negative sentiments in Pittsburgh Instagram accounts.

Empathy is the ability to share the feelings of another person. But when introduced to those feelings by the thousands of images we encounter every day — on the web, via Facebook and Instagram, from friends and strangers — how do we respond? New York-based French artist Antoine Catala explores empathy in the digital age, and how images provoke emotion in the Carnegie Museum of Art exhibition, Distant Feel.

In preparing for the exhibition, opening Saturday, February 14, staff brainstormed about ways to communicate digital empathy, said Jonathan Gaugler, media relations manager for Carnegie Museum of Art.

“We don’t really know what the appropriate response is for people we’ve never met. Catala uses an analogy of a doctor: If you’re diagnosing a patient and you have bad news, you can’t empathize with a person as you would a friend, but empathy is still very important,” Gaugler said. “As we were talking about it, we thought ‘Why don’t we do something in Pittsburgh about the way we emotionally respond to images?’”

That’s where the Gulf Tower came in. Owned by Rugby Realty, the building’s beacon often transmits the weather, but can change for holidays and other occasions. For two days, February 11-13, the beacon will reflect positive and negative feelings in Pittsburgh Instagram accounts, lighting up green and red accordingly. The content of accounts will be analyzed using a sentiment engine customized by Pittsburgh developer David Newbury.

“There are several existing sentiment engines that respond to different words. Researchers have tagged tens of thousands of words as positive or negative,” Gaugler said.

Gaugler doesn’t have any predictions about whether the beacon will light up predominantly green or red, but he said one thing’s for sure:

“People love Pittsburgh, people love taking pictures of Pittsburgh, and people love seeing pictures of Pittsburgh. But there are all kinds of strange aberrations from the context of a photograph to the words themselves, so we’ll see.”

To participate, tag photos with #cmoa or #distantfeel, or check the website for live updates on Pittsburgh’s Instagram mood swings.

Margaret J Krauss

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.