Tim Allwine and I been experimenting with various services to make tag clouds of arbitrary data. (i.e., services to do stemming, remove stop words, calculate stats, and render a styled cloud using an AJAX widget John Allwine put together). Just for fun, I pointed these tools at Tim’s “What is Web 2.0” article and got the attached file back. I thought it was pretty amazing how quickly the broad themes popped out.
Also interesting to me is how tag clouds are morphing into a general analytical metaphor. The term seems to have become a shorthand way of saying “a visual display that conveys the broad themes that emerge from textual analysis.” For example, here’s something Richard MacManus pointed to on Read/WriteWeb: Bill Gates CES speech as a tag cloud. Here’s another example by Chirag Mehta — a visualization of the state of the union address — it’s even animated, so you can see themes rise and fade over time.”
Now, on the one hand, this is very cool, and the tag cloud for the article is a true reflection of many of the concepts in the article. For example, the size of the word “data” emphasizes a point that is central to my thinking on Web 2.0 but that I still don’t think has been grasped entirely by many people in the software industry. But the tag cloud also shows the limits of tag clouds. The single most important phrase that describes Web 2.0 is “collective intelligence” and you’ll never see that in the cloud. Maybe a version that looks for phrases and not just words would help. In addition to collective intelligence, words and phrases that I would think of as central to Web 2.0 include “data”, “users”, “platform”, “network effects”, and “internet.”
All that being said, I’m a big fan of tag clouds. 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. Ryan Grimm and Andy Bruno also built an awesome tag cloud/search engine of the content of all O’Reilly books. So they have many uses beyond just showing what we normally think of as tags. Thanks, Andrew!