This is what my post Too Good to Be True looks like as a Word Cloud. Without reading all the words in this "cloud" or in my original post, you can quickly discern that the post features an osprey in a lake and also something about water and a swim.
My tech-savvy husband introduced me to the world of Word Clouds--a software that resizes words in a document based on their frequency of use: Frequently used words appear larger; less frequently, smaller. This tool has become recently popular for the search engine optimization of web pages. I am not exactly sure what this means, but it has to do with making spiders more effective at crawling (and finding stuff). Being an accidental naturalist, I am not interested in searching for things more efficiently on the web or elsewhere, but I do love the way a Word Cloud looks. My husband tried to shape the posting on the osprey into a raptor shaped cloud, but the only choice available was songbird-like. It was, as he said, kind of Musak-y.
This particular software--Tagxedo--generated a somewhat artistic cloud-shaped interpretation--a poetic rendition suitable for framing or posting on a blog. You can turn poems, speeches, love letters, whatever you can write into a Word Cloud, also called a Tag Cloud. Wordle is another popular Word Cloud generator.
Not all software produces this kind of cloud, nor are all Word Cloud users are interested in artistry. Nor are all users interested in web page optimization. Many are interested in understanding quickly and graphically what is being stressed in a particular document, say a grant proposal, white paper, or business document. While the actual words in the document may say one thing, the Word Cloud version of the document shows that the emphasis on certain words say another. Or, that my using a certain word frequently, the author may reveal subconsciously what he or she does not state directly.
You can feed in the URL from a customer website and get the frequency display can give you hints about their values, priorities, subtle “messages” which might or might not be intended. For example (in ten seconds or less) you can turn the homepage of the USGS into a Word Cloud and see the prevalence of the words “hazards” and “quick,” followed by “climate change” and “science” and “water." Anything meaningful there?
If you go to the Nisqually Land Trust website, you can learn that "acres," "mount rainier," and "wildlife" are important, and to a slightly lesser degree, "community," and "partner." This makes sense as the NLT has recently acquired 600 acres of property that is the Mount Rainier Gateway Forest Reserve for wildlife habitat and that they relied on the efforts of the community and various funding partners to accomplish this. The Word Cloud tells you that this accomplishment is a very important one to the Nisqually Land Trust. And rightly so.Word Clouds are also great for writers who need a new tool for helping vary their vocabulary. If you generate a Word Cloud from your book proposal and see that the words PLEASE, DESPERATE, and STARVING are at an enormous 72 pt, you might want to eliminate most, if not all of these particular words.
I am imaging an Audio Word Cloud in which a recorded talk or speech could be played back with the most frequently used words spoken the loudest. That would be hilarious. Imagine listening to an Audio Word Cloud of a teenager shouting LIKE, YOU KNOW, WHATEVER and whispering everything else.
A few other thoughts:
Will Word Clouds make us less careful readers? (I don't have time to read this, but I can get a gist by scanning the outsized words).
Do Word Clouds make words less meaningful? (I see that it's important, but I don't know what it means).
Is there anything wrong with playing with words? (No.)
Does anyone remember George Herbert's "Easter Wings" of 1633 ? The man was ahead of his time!