Justine Zhang


ConvoKit: A Toolkit for the Analysis of Conversations
Jonathan P. Chang | Caleb Chiam | Liye Fu | Andrew Wang | Justine Zhang | Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil
Proceedings of the 21th Annual Meeting of the Special Interest Group on Discourse and Dialogue

This paper describes the design and functionality of ConvoKit, an open-source toolkit for analyzing conversations and the social interactions embedded within. ConvoKit provides an unified framework for representing and manipulating conversational data, as well as a large and diverse collection of conversational datasets. By providing an intuitive interface for exploring and interacting with conversational data, this toolkit lowers the technical barriers for the broad adoption of computational methods for conversational analysis.

Balancing Objectives in Counseling Conversations: Advancing Forwards or Looking Backwards
Justine Zhang | Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil
Proceedings of the 58th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics

Throughout a conversation, participants make choices that can orient the flow of the interaction. Such choices are particularly salient in the consequential domain of crisis counseling, where a difficulty for counselors is balancing between two key objectives: advancing the conversation towards a resolution, and empathetically addressing the crisis situation. In this work, we develop an unsupervised methodology to quantify how counselors manage this balance. Our main intuition is that if an utterance can only receive a narrow range of appropriate replies, then its likely aim is to advance the conversation forwards, towards a target within that range. Likewise, an utterance that can only appropriately follow a narrow range of possible utterances is likely aimed backwards at addressing a specific situation within that range. By applying this intuition, we can map each utterance to a continuous orientation axis that captures the degree to which it is intended to direct the flow of the conversation forwards or backwards. This unsupervised method allows us to characterize counselor behaviors in a large dataset of crisis counseling conversations, where we show that known counseling strategies intuitively align with this axis. We also illustrate how our measure can be indicative of a conversation’s progress, as well as its effectiveness.


Finding Your Voice: The Linguistic Development of Mental Health Counselors
Justine Zhang | Robert Filbin | Christine Morrison | Jaclyn Weiser | Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil
Proceedings of the 57th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics

Mental health counseling is an enterprise with profound societal importance where conversations play a primary role. In order to acquire the conversational skills needed to face a challenging range of situations, mental health counselors must rely on training and on continued experience with actual clients. However, in the absence of large scale longitudinal studies, the nature and significance of this developmental process remain unclear. For example, prior literature suggests that experience might not translate into consequential changes in counselor behavior. This has led some to even argue that counseling is a profession without expertise. In this work, we develop a computational framework to quantify the extent to which individuals change their linguistic behavior with experience and to study the nature of this evolution. We use our framework to conduct a large longitudinal study of mental health counseling conversations, tracking over 3,400 counselors across their tenure. We reveal that overall, counselors do indeed change their conversational behavior to become more diverse across interactions, developing an individual voice that distinguishes them from other counselors. Furthermore, a finer-grained investigation shows that the rate and nature of this diversification vary across functionally different conversational components.


Conversations Gone Awry: Detecting Early Signs of Conversational Failure
Justine Zhang | Jonathan Chang | Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil | Lucas Dixon | Yiqing Hua | Dario Taraborelli | Nithum Thain
Proceedings of the 56th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (Volume 1: Long Papers)

One of the main challenges online social systems face is the prevalence of antisocial behavior, such as harassment and personal attacks. In this work, we introduce the task of predicting from the very start of a conversation whether it will get out of hand. As opposed to detecting undesirable behavior after the fact, this task aims to enable early, actionable prediction at a time when the conversation might still be salvaged. To this end, we develop a framework for capturing pragmatic devices—such as politeness strategies and rhetorical prompts—used to start a conversation, and analyze their relation to its future trajectory. Applying this framework in a controlled setting, we demonstrate the feasibility of detecting early warning signs of antisocial behavior in online discussions.


Asking too much? The rhetorical role of questions in political discourse
Justine Zhang | Arthur Spirling | Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil
Proceedings of the 2017 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing

Questions play a prominent role in social interactions, performing rhetorical functions that go beyond that of simple informational exchange. The surface form of a question can signal the intention and background of the person asking it, as well as the nature of their relation with the interlocutor. While the informational nature of questions has been extensively examined in the context of question-answering applications, their rhetorical aspects have been largely understudied. In this work we introduce an unsupervised methodology for extracting surface motifs that recur in questions, and for grouping them according to their latent rhetorical role. By applying this framework to the setting of question sessions in the UK parliament, we show that the resulting typology encodes key aspects of the political discourse—such as the bifurcation in questioning behavior between government and opposition parties—and reveals new insights into the effects of a legislator’s tenure and political career ambitions.


Conversational Flow in Oxford-style Debates
Justine Zhang | Ravi Kumar | Sujith Ravi | Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil
Proceedings of the 2016 Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies