‘O little cloud the Virgin said, I charge thee to tell me…’

Every once in a while Clayfox drifts into the tag clouds. And yet its heart has never quite followed. Maybe that’s because most often those clouds don’t prove to be so very informative after all.

Let’s review: tag clouds are a way to visualize the frequency of application of (usually uncontrolled) keywords to a corpus of stuff by a number of people. In many — even most — cases I wouldn’t call these taggers a ‘community’, unless we water down the definition of ‘community’ to a collection of people who have signed up for an online service. Even within the context of one academic tagging experiment, that can be thin or lumpy tea….

Even populous and richly tagged environments like Flickr can puff up clouds that seem, well, rather vaporous. Look at the cloud of “all time most popular tags,” and what is revealed?


It seems that when taking digital pictures with NIKONS and CANONS Flickrites gravitate to WEDDINGS and PARTIES, they focus on FRIENDS and FAMILY, they like to TRAVEL on VACATION to the BEACH or to places like CALIFORNIA and FRANCE and JAPAN. Well, well, blow me over with a feather.

Even as a means of self-portrayal, cloud tags come up short — at least to an unstrategic tagger like myself. I use and love del.icio.us — but the cloud that it serves up of my tagging activity has never been of more interest than, say, an alphabetical list of my tags. And I’ve never really discovered much about anyone else by scanning a cloud of their del.icio.us tags. Have you?

I’m willing to be convinced that appending tag clouds can be a smart search engine strategy. Perhaps this is their real utility: providing another way for the machines to read us.


But I’m not anti-cloud, far from it. I just happen to think that clouds are a lot more interesting to human beings when they are of words in a text, rather than of tags applied to objects. Tag clouds open up all kinds of blurry mysteries: who’s doing the tagging? how canny or consistent are the taggers? what is the extent of the corpus being tagged? But a word cloud of a given text can be as revelatory as word mining — a re-mapping of a document to bring out its frequencies, its quirks, its long tails.

And word clouds, at least those generated on the addictive new Wordle , can be quite beautiful as well. I can imagine students really learning from them, or at least investigating the vocabulary field of, say, a poem from new angles.

As an example, I’ve created word clouds of two poems by William Blake: the introduction to Songs of Innocence, and the introduction to Songs of Experience. Compare them below, and you’ll quickly see that the Innocence poem is more repetitious, aural, interactive, while the world of the Experience poem is more disperse, visual, occupied by distances. You could get all that by reading the poems themselves, without any scrambling of their words and plumping up of their frequencies. But word clouds are a way of remapping a fixed world of meaning, visually exploring it — an engaging thing to do even if they drive you back, in the end, into fresh appreciation for syntax and line structure and the very contexts they explode. Enjoy!

William Blake word cloud - innocence

William Blake word cloud - experience

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