Archive for May 28th, 2012

Word clouds may be overused, but they still have their place

Word clouds are graphic word pictures you can use to map or emphasize a cluster of words for a variety of purposes. WordPress offers a word cloud widget that shows off your most frequently used tags/keywords, the most often used words appearing largest in the cloud.

Originating in the early 90s, there are three main types of word clouds, which are distinguished by their meanings, rather than appearance.In the first type, one tag appears for the frequency of each item. In the second type, global tag clouds indicate frequencies that are aggregated across all items and users. In the third type, the cloud contains categories, with the size of each tag indicating the number of subcategories.

Not everyone is a fan. Jacob Harris of the Neiman Journalism Lab writes in a post titled “Word Clouds Considered Harmful:

For starters, word clouds support only the crudest sorts of textual analysis, much like figuring out a protein by getting a count only of its amino acids. This can be wildly misleading; I created a word cloud of Tea Party feelings about Obama, and the two largest words were implausibly “like” and “policy,” mainly because the importuned word “don’t” was automatically excluded. (Fair enough: Such stopwords would otherwise dominate the word clouds.) A phrase or thematic analysis would reach more accurate conclusions. When looking at the word cloud of the War Logs, does the equal sizing of the words “car” and “blast” indicate a large number of reports about car bombs or just many reports about cars or explosions? How do I compare the relative frequency of lesser-used words? Also, doesn’t focusing on the occurrence of specific words instead of concepts or themes miss the fact that different reports about truck bombs might be use the words “truck,” “vehicle,” or even “bongo” (since the Kia Bongo is very popular in Iraq)?

I’m of a mixed mind on the whole word cloud idea. While I believe they have their place (classrooms being, perhaps, the most obvious), they are becoming ubiquitous and overused — much like the Comic Sans and Papyrus fonts.

Who am I to judge, though? Maybe you have an important use for the almighty word cloud. So here’s a quick primer in Wordle.net, a free online tool for crafting word clouds.

  • Visit the site and click on the CREATE link.
  • Insert your terms into the box or enter a link from which you’d like the program to pull words.
  • Note that the system is built for single words only. The only way to include a phrase is by making it AllOneWord.
  • Once you’ve got all your words in the box, click GO.
  • Stylize your word cloud by altering the FONTS, COLORS, or LAYOUT. You do have the option to customize your palette.

Here are a few sample layouts, all using the same words.

Today I was reminded that we often have the biggest challenges with the parent to whom we are most similar. Such was the case with my mom. Our relationship was often turbulent, but my dad was fond of telling me that I got all my creative talents from her. All of that came rushing back as I “touched up” my word cloud. Mom never bought an item of clothing, a picture frame, or a flower arrangement that she didn’t find a way to “improve” as soon as she got it home. For my part, I changed the color and placement of some of the words in my cloud. I also made the term “my book” larger, turned it a bright fuchsia color, and moved it to the very center of the word cloud.

If you think you may have a use for word clouds in your book marketing endeavors, by all means, give it a try.

Happy word clouding!



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