When I hear the phrase ‘word cloud’ a memory from the HBO show Weeds surfaces in my mind (Season 6, Episode 12). The anti-hero, Nancy, is threatened by an under cover journalist getting dangerously close to the truth. Nancy scoffs when presented with a word cloud, but is then on her guard when she hears that the top 5 adjectives for her son, Shane, have aided the journalist to correctly guess that Shane is Pilar’s murder! Drama!
While wildly entertaining, this is a scene of pure fiction. I doubt word clouds will be protocol for investigating anytime soon. I also go on to doubt that word clouds will be used in serious academic writing either. New York Times journalist, Jacob Harris, considers the tool to be “the crudest sorts of textual analysis” for simply using size to indicate frequency of words used. Strong opinion considering this is coming from a guy who specializes in data journalism. On the other hand, author Julie Meloni would say the Wordle tool is simple and useful. Her evidence though is firmly based in literary examples. Creating a word cloud is appropriate for single pieces of text like poems, novels, or speeches because you are often looking for themes or patterns of rhetoric. Textual analysis in an academic setting is meant to search large amounts of texts not just one.
I experimented with make a word cloud of my own. First, I used Altmetric to gather articles from David Bawden’s suggested journals (listed at the end) to use in our RECS assignment all published in the last 6 months. I exported the data into a .csv file and opened in excel. Next, I simply copy and pasted all the titles into the Wordle text box.
I noticed that Wordle automatically uses stop words (common words that don’t mean anything by themselves, like conjunctions or prepositions). A convenient feature, but it doesn’t have anyway for you to customize the stop words. The only alterations the user can make are superficial, things like layout, font and color. This website is a great tool for visualization, but not such a great tool for analysis.
Another website Voyant-tools.org also includes a visualization of your text along with a wide variety of useful statistical tools. I’ll also mention that if you hover a word in the word cloud with your cursor then the number of times that word is used will appear.
I’ll admit that I probably wouldn’t use the frequency chart very often even though it looks very analytical. Let’s just say it doesn’t speak to me. However I would use the ‘key word in context’ tool. This tool will list out the sentence a selected word originated in, thus eliminating the problem of separating signifiers from what they signify Harris described.
In a very brief conclusion, Voyant has much more to offer than simple Wordle.
List of journals for Altmetric data set:
Journal of Librarianship and Information Science
Journal of Documentation
Journal of Information Science
Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology