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Text Clouds: A New Form of Tag Cloud?

March 15, 2007 12:04 AM | Posted in: Tag Clouds

During 2006, tag clouds moved beyond their well-known role as navigation mechanisms and indicators of activity within social media experiences, emerging as a standard visualization technique for texts and textual data in general.

This use of tag clouds does not commonly involve tags, social networks, emergent architectures, folksonomies, or metadata.

"Text cloud" might be a more accurate label for these visualizations than tag cloud. In addition to recognizing fundamental differences - text clouds differ from tag clouds in composition (no tags at all) and purpose (predominantly comprehension, rather than access or navigation) - distinguishing the two types of clouds will make it much easier to assess their abilities to support user experience needs and business goals.

The emergence of this new form of text cloud looks like a good example of speciation in action (though it's too early to tell whether the end result will be cladogenesis or anagenesis).

Major and minor publications feature(d) text clouds as visualizations in 2006, both permanently and temporarily:

The Economist's Text cloud

In 2006, several free and public tools for generating text clouds locally on the desktop or via a service available through the Web were released. The increase in the number and variety of specific text cloud tools reflects embrace and enthusiasm for text clouds in communities of interest for information visualization, language processing, and semantics.

Some of the better known examples of text cloud tools include:

The Many Eyes Cloud

The text clouds created with these tools range across a wide spectrum of speeches and writing:

Text clouds are meant to facilitate rapid understanding and comprehension of a body of words, links, phrases, etc. Any block of information composed of text is open to analysis as a text cloud, as these screen captures of text clouds for restaurant menus, ingredients, wikipedia, magazine covers, and even poems demonstrate.

Tim O'Reilly uses text clouds for a number of purposes:

We used them a bunch to analyze the topics, companies and people at the last FOO Camp, and they were the most useful of the visualizations we did. They helped us see where we were under- and over-represented in terms of companies and particular technologies we were wanting to explore. ...So they have many uses beyond just showing what we normally think of as tags.

Non-linear Access
The emergence of text clouds shows continuing exploration and refinement of cloud style displays as a new form of user interface, adapted to specific contexts. Continued refinement of text clouds in this direction may indicate an expanding role for commonly available and sophisticated text visualization tools to support specialized goals for information display and understanding.

Remember that Google is busy right now scanning thousands of books per day from several of the world's major academic libraries, as part of it's self-appointed labor of organizing the world's information. That's a lot of new text. How will people work with effectively with such an overwhelming amount of text, of so many different kinds, from so many different sources?

Consider the following, from Ulysses' Without Guilt by Stacy Schiff (in the New York Times):

Recently Cathleen Black, president of Hearst Magazines, urged a group of publishing executives to think of their audience as consumers rather than readers. She's onto something: arguably the very definition of reading has changed. So Google asserts in defending its right to scan copyrighted materials. The process of digitizing books transforms them, the company contends, into something else; our engagement with a text is different when we call it up online. We are no longer reading. We're searching - a function that conveniently did not exist when the concept of copyright was established.

On a larger scale, the growing use of text clouds hints at a (potential) deeper cultural shift in the way we go about reading and comprehension: a shift from linear modes based on reading words and sentences, to nonlinear modes based on viewing summaries of content in aggregate as a way of discovering concepts and patterns. (Finally, a legitimate use for Twitter...) Experimenting with text clouds for non-linear reading and comprehension (now that's a sexy term...) is a natural evolution of the role cloud style displays play as an alternative / compliment / supplement to the list based navigation now dominant in user experiences.

A Text Cloud of Twitter Posts (A TwitterCloud?)

created at TagCrowd.com

I'm not predicting the end of reading as we know it, nor the end of navigation as we know it: both will be with us for a long, long time. But I do believe that text clouds might constitute an emerging method for augmenting comprehension and display of text, with broad potential uses.

Enterprising Clouds
What about someone lacking time to fully read a Shakespeare play, or a faddish business book, but who needs to understand something about that book's meaning and substance? A text cloud creation tool could extract the most commonly mentioned terms, and otherwise profile the words that make up the text. It would be risky to rely on a shallow text cloud (and Tim O'Reilly mentions this specifically) for deep comprehension, but it would be enough to understand the concepts that appear, and allow polite conversation at a networking event, or lunch with that certain manager who recommended the book.

If I were entrepreneurial, I'd source a set of free electronic versions of classic texts, process them with one of the free text cloud tools, apply some XSLT and other transformations to generate consistent readable formatting, and sell the results as a line of ebooks called "Cloud Notes". Of course, someone's beaten me to it already...

What's in store for the future?
In this fashion, 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 and acid simultaneously; assembled with muscular syntactical and semantic processing, and fed to reading-fatigued post-literates as swirling blobs of giant words in wild colors, it consists of signifiers for reified concepts that tweak the eye-brain-language conduit directly.

local tags: information_overload, postliteracy, reading, tagclouds, textclouds, visualization

12 Comments

Joe

Another great post. Visualization is clearly an important benefit of a textcloud but also consider the analytical value of having a lot of text clouds about a specific topic. Tag popularity is web 1.0. Applied text cloud analytics is web 2.0.

Best
Stewart

Joe -- very interesting post. You might be interested in some of the tag clouds I've done on Many-Eyes, including 6 different editions of Whitman's Leaves of Grass.(my stuff is located at the above URl) I'm working on the idea now of a literary mashup of tag clouds: take two or more works with similar themes (Say Spenser's The Faerie Queen and Shakespeare's Midsummer Nights Dream, combine the two texts and tag cloud (or text cloud) them. It's something like William S. Burroughs' cut up technique meets Web 2.0.

Joe, I won't repeat the praise but great survey of the progress this communication has made. Also wanted to point you to my own small contribution to tag/text/word clouding. Not the deepest example of the meme, but not the shallowest either I think. :o)

http://snapshirts.com/

Jonah: I love all the new businesses popping up around clouds these days - it's encouraging to see so much entrepreneurism (?) in a new space. Good luck with snapshirt!

Greg: Nice work - I learned about ManyEyes at IDEA2006, and am glad to see people putting it to interesting and artisitic uses right away

Stewart: Could you share some of the more interesting examples of clouds from Scriptcloud that you've seen?

I like the idea of using text clouds to display non-tag data. In this ManyEyes graph (URL below) I used font size to display the relative sizes of university endowments. I'm working on some similar data displays that show world population, etc. I think it's a great way to put lots of information in an easy-to-read but compact space. Much more data dense than a bar graph!

http://services.alphaworks.ibm.com/manyeyes/view/Sh3S9FsOtha6Qj-yrrjGF2-

The question arises is the usability of Tag Clouds. Do they really help visitors. What does it mean to a normal visitor, how often they are clicked through.

i don't really believe this kind of clouds are useful from a SEO point of view...too many unrelated links on a page
just my opinion though..

Joe -
Text clouds would be good for showing novice writers that they are not focused on what they think they are focused on, but without the mechanical "keyword density" calculations.

For example, if you are writing a product review, the product type, the name of the manufacturer, the product's name, and some verbs and nouns relating to that the product is used for should show up prominently in the cloud.

You need to use a generator that has a stop list, of course. I'm using the generator at tagcrowd.com and it's really nice.

Check out www.cloudtuner.com

I've created a tag cloud that is animated and shows the relationships between tags based on co-occurance... check it out at
Animated Tag Cloud

Fascinating reading. Do text clouds have anything in common with Grounded Theory http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grounded_theory - a form of research where text is analysed so that important words identified and coding of keywords takes place. I don't know a lot about grounded theory but it sounds like something that could benefit from text clouds or vice versa?

Hi Eamon. I didn't have Grounded Theory specifically in mind while I was writing about text clouds, but that doesn't mean there's no connection. There are some text cloud analysis tools available, but I've not heard any of the authors mention grounded theory in relation.

Maybe you've found a good thread to follow up on :)

Thinking broadly, almost all of the research / discovery / insight methods current in management consulting and user experience are borrowed from disciplines like social sciences and cognitive sciences. If you look under the hood at many of these methods I think it's apparent that GT is an important component and / or significant influencer. For example, I worked in an IT strategy and management consulting group that relied on a method directly derived from GT (thought I'm sure this escaped most of the people involved in defining it, ironically...)

And on a more technical side, some of the concepts that GT relies on (coding, categories, etc.) are present in search, indexing, and semantic tools.

What sort of connections do you see?

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