Archive for April 2007


Text Clouds and Advertising: Microsoft's Community Buzz Project

April 28th, 2007 — 2:47pm

Thanks to Dat­a­min­ing, for post­ing a writeup and screen­shot of a pro­to­type of Com­mu­nity Buzz, which fea­tures a text cloud. Com­mu­nity Buzz is a Microsoft Research project, and this is a per­fect use of a text cloud to visu­al­ize con­cepts and fur­ther com­pre­hen­sion in a body of text.
More inter­est­ing than the text cloud is the space in the screen­shot that looks like a place­holder for adver­tis­ing dri­ven by the con­tents of the text cloud. The anno­ta­tion reads “Con­tex­tual ads based on the Buzz cloud key­words”, imply­ing an adver­tis­ing based rev­enue mech­a­nism dri­ven by cre­ation and analy­sis of a text cloud.
Com­mu­nity Buzz Screen­shot

The descrip­tion of Com­mu­nity Buzz posted on the Tech­Fest 2007 page, includes the fol­low­ing, mak­ing the con­nec­tion to an adver­tis­ing model explicit:
Com­mu­nity Buzz com­bines text min­ing, social account­ing (Netscan/MSR-Halo), and new visu­al­iza­tion tech­niques to study and present the con­tent of com­mu­ni­ca­tion threads in online dis­cus­sion groups. The merg­ing of these research tech­nolo­gies results in a sys­tem that gives great value to com­mu­nity par­tic­i­pants, enables highly directed adver­tis­ing, and sup­plies rich met­rics to prod­uct man­agers.
Assum­ing it’s pos­si­ble to pro­vide highly directed adver­tis­ing and rich met­rics based on text clouds, I can see the ben­e­fits of for adver­tis­ers and prod­uct man­agers, and researchers of many kinds. Yet I’m not con­vinced of the ben­e­fits for com­mu­nity par­tic­i­pants. Where will the text clouds come from, and how will their con­tent reflect the needs of the com­mu­nity? How will social dynam­ics shape or affect these text clouds, to make it pos­si­ble for them to lever­age net­work effects, dif­fer­en­tial par­tic­i­pa­tion, and the scale ben­e­fits of con­nected social sys­tems?
Text clouds — at least at this stage of devel­op­ment — sup­port rapid but shal­low com­pre­hen­sion: maybe this is per­fect for adver­tis­ing pur­poses…
Like a pile of dry bones that used to make up a skele­ton, text clouds lack the spe­cific struc­ture and con­text of their source, and so can­not replace com­pre­hen­sion. Text clouds decon­struct the word ele­ments that make up a body of text the same way spec­trum analy­sis iden­ti­fies the dif­fer­ent wave­lengths of light from a dis­tant star. It’s a bit like using sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis to read King Lear, instead of using a vari­ety of tools to learn more about what Lear might have to say.
A bet­ter use of text clouds, or any other type of decon­struc­tive method (a vari­ant of semi­otics) is as a tool for enhanc­ing com­pre­hen­sion. Text clouds seem to bypass dis­tinc­tions between high con­text and low con­text that present bar­ri­ers to under­stand­ing deep con­text, by focus­ing on the raw con­tent of the source, on the level of it’s con­stituent ele­ments.
The goal of exam­in­ing the fun­da­men­tal or essen­tial makeup of some­thing we’re explor­ing — as a way of bet­ter under­stand­ing that thing over­all — is an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal method pur­sued by Plato and a host of other West­ern philoso­phers and nat­ural sci­en­tists. We should be cau­tious with new tools, how­ever, as the urge to illu­mi­nate and dis­sect the fun­da­men­tal makeup of that which is com­plex and nuanced can go too far, cross­ing from the insight­ful to the ster­ile domain of soul­less reduc­tivism. Wit­ness the responses of cor­rupt offi­cials to Javier Bardem’s char­ac­ter Agustín, in John Malkovich’s direc­to­r­ial debut The Dancer Upstairs.
Agustín is a police hero who saves his coun­try from a crim­i­nal and oppres­sive gov­ern­ment, social dis­in­te­gra­tion, and guerilla takeover. He then sur­ren­ders all prospects of win­ning the pres­i­dency and lead­ing his strug­gling nation to pros­per­ity for the unre­quited love of a woman who aided the same guerilla leader he helped cap­ture. Agustín strikes a secret bar­gain to secure her free­dom with the cor­rupt pow­ers that be, on con­di­tion that he with­draw from pub­lic life. His choice is incom­pre­hen­si­ble to the soul­less offi­cials in power. To these peo­ple, who buy, sell, and exe­cute hun­dreds with­out a thought, Agustín’s lover “…is just a girl — 70% water.“
For ref­er­ence, the overview of Com­mu­nity Buzz:

  • Com­mu­nity Buzz com­bines analy­sis of the con­tent of online dis­cus­sions and social struc­ture of the com­mu­ni­ties to iden­tify hot top­ics and visu­al­ize how they evolve over time.
  • Through search and Buzz cloud users can access rel­e­vant dis­cus­sion threads and adverts linked to the search results and Buzz keywords.
  • Visu­al­iza­tion of key­word trends enables the users to mon­i­tor the pop­u­lar­ity of selected top­ics. Mesasages can be fil­tered based on the ‘social sta­tus’ of the author in the community.

And the com­plete descrip­tion of the demo men­tioned by Dat­a­min­ing:

Com­mu­nity Buzz is a new win­dow into online com­mu­ni­ties! Inter­est­ing and use­ful con­ver­sa­tions, authors, and groups are dis­cov­ered eas­ily using this tool, jointly devel­oped by Microsoft Research Redmond’s Com­mu­nity Tech­nolo­gies group and Microsoft Research Cambridge’s Inte­grated Sys­tems team, with spon­sor­ship from Live Labs. Com­mu­nity Buzz com­bines text min­ing, social account­ing (Netscan/MSR-Halo), and new visu­al­iza­tion tech­niques to study and present the con­tent of com­mu­ni­ca­tion threads in online dis­cus­sion groups. The merg­ing of these research tech­nolo­gies results in a sys­tem that gives great value to com­mu­nity par­tic­i­pants, enables highly directed adver­tis­ing, and sup­plies rich met­rics to prod­uct man­agers.

Comment » | Tag Clouds

Text Clouds of the Democratic Debate

April 28th, 2007 — 1:36pm

Mark Blu­men­thal, of Pollster.com, recently posted a set of text clouds show­ing the words used by each can­di­date in the Demo­c­ra­tic pres­i­den­tial debate Thurs­day night. The clouds were gen­er­ated from tran­scripts of the debate, using Daniel Steinbock’s Tag Crowd tool.
Can­di­dates’ Text Clouds

In the screen­shot of Mark’s post­ing, it’s easy to see this is a great exam­ple of a col­lec­tion of text clouds used for com­par­a­tive visu­al­iza­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion. The goal is to enhance under­stand­ing of the mean­ing and con­tent of the candidate’s over­all con­ver­sa­tions dur­ing the debate, an idea I explored briefly last year.
Just a month ago, in a post that iden­ti­fied text clouds as a new and dis­tinct tag cloud vari­ant, I sug­gested:

text clouds may become a gen­er­ally applied tool for man­ag­ing grow­ing infor­ma­tion over­load by using auto­mated syn­the­sis and sum­ma­riza­tion. In the infor­ma­tion sat­u­rated future (or the infor­ma­tion sat­u­rated present), text clouds are the com­mon exec­u­tive sum­mary on steroids

Sup­port­ing the com­par­i­son and inter­pre­ta­tion of polit­i­cal speeches is an inven­tive, timely, and resource­ful appli­ca­tion that could make text clouds a reg­u­lar part of the new per­sonal and pro­fes­sional toolkit for effec­tively han­dling the tor­rents of infor­ma­tion over­whelm­ing peo­ple in impor­tant sit­u­a­tions like vet­ting polit­i­cal can­di­dates.
I espe­cially like the way this use of text clouds helps neatly side­step the dis­heart­en­ing ubiq­uity of the sound­bite, by aggre­gat­ing, dis­till­ing, and sum­ma­riz­ing all the things the can­di­dates said. I sus­pect few — if any — of the cam­paigns real­ize the poten­tial for text clouds, but they def­i­nitely know the detri­men­tal power of sound­bites:

“It’s a mess,” said an exasperated-sounding Mr. Prince, Mr. Edwards’s deputy cam­paign man­ager. “Debates are impor­tant, but in these big mul­ti­can­di­date races they end up not being an exchange of ideas, but just an exchange of sound bites. They have become a dis­trac­tion.“

From Debates Los­ing a Bit of Lus­ter in a Big Field

The value of a col­lec­tion of sound­bites over an insight­ful dia­log is — apolo­gies for the pun — debat­able. But even if a sim­ple exchange of sound­bites is what the new short­ened for­mats of many debates yields us, text clouds may help derive some value and insight from the results. The com­bined decon­struc­tive and recon­struc­tive approach that text clouds employ should make it pos­si­ble to bal­ance the weight of sin­gle remarks of can­di­dates by plac­ing them in a larger and more use­ful con­text.
His­tory Repeats Itself
In the longer term view of the his­tory of our responses to the prob­lems of infor­ma­tion over­load, the appear­ance of text clouds may mark the emer­gence of a new gen­eral puprose tool for visu­al­iz­ing ever greater quan­ti­ties of infor­ma­tion to sup­port some qual­i­ta­tively ben­e­fi­cial end (like pick­ing a good can­di­date for Pres­i­dent, which we sorely need).
The under­ly­ing pat­tern — a con­sis­tent oscil­la­tion between man­ag­ing effec­tively and inef­fec­tively cop­ing, depend­ing on the bal­ance between infor­ma­tion quan­tity and tool qual­ity — remains the same. Yet there is also value in know­ing the cycles that shape our expe­ri­ence of han­dling the infor­ma­tion cru­cial to mak­ing deci­sions, espe­cially deci­sions as impor­tant as who leads the coun­try.
The NY Times tran­script of the debate is avail­able here.

Comment » | Tag Clouds

IA Summit 2007 Panel Presentation

April 11th, 2007 — 12:34am

Thanks to all who made the 2007 IA Sum­mit in Las Vegas this year both worth­while and mem­o­rable, by orga­niz­ing, pre­sent­ing, vol­un­teer­ing, or attend­ing. Thanks espe­cially to every­one who par­tic­i­pated in our panel Lessons From Fail­ure: Or How IAs Learn to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love the Bombs, and brought with them a will­ing­ness to share, laugh, and think dif­fer­ently about a nor­mally taboo sube­jct.
We lim­ited our pre­sen­ta­tions to 10 min­utes to encour­age audi­ence involve­ment, and reduce the talking-head with a micro­phone quo­tient typ­i­cal of panel for­mats. This worked well, but meant set­ting aside quite a bit of mate­r­ial that’s worth bring­ing out: the abbre­vi­ated ver­sion of my talk on how states of mind affect fail­ure is avail­able directly from the con­fer­ence site.
The full ver­sion of my slides on state of mind, self-definition, and par­al­lels between indi­vid­ual and soci­etal responses to fail­ure is avail­able from Slideshare here, and appears below.
The full ver­sion includes:

  • addi­tional dis­cus­sion of soci­eties in crisis
  • Pres­i­dent Bush
  • a major fig­ure in Bud­dhist philosophy
  • a per­sonal tale of busi­ness ven­ture gone wrong
  • Cap­tain Kirk
  • sys­tems theory
  • lever­age points poten­tially use­ful for avert­ing failure

Stay tuned for a pos­si­ble writ­ten treat­ment, in Boxes and Arrows soon.
Should I see irony, serendip­ity, or both in the fact that while I was shar­ing my tale of not suc­ceed­ing as an entre­pre­neur, the room down the hall was host­ing Start-up case stud­ies: how five of us started our own busi­nesses — fea­tur­ing Vic­tor Lom­bardi, Lane Becker, Frank Ramirez, Lou Rosen­feld, Gene Smith, and Christina Wodtke? If you’re think­ing of start­ing some­thing as you read this, I’ll bet my advice on what *not* to do is bet­ter :)
There were many, many good ses­sions this year; a few that I con­sid­ered high­lights include:
Olly Wright’s Infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture and eth­i­cal design
Emmanuele Quintarelli’s Fac­eTag: inte­grat­ing bottom-up and top-down clas­si­fi­ca­tion in a social tag­ging sys­tem
James Robertson’s Enter­prise IA method­olo­gies: start­ing two steps ear­lier
Full slides: It Seemed Like the Thing To Do At the Time: State of Mind and Fail­ure

Comment » | Information Architecture

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