Word Clouds: How to Decipher the Floating Text

Voyant WordCloud Phillips
Voyant Word Cloud Example

My experience with word clouds has always been for fun. It might be a bit weird to analyze William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (here’s a link, it’s awesome), but what else would I do with my time?

I used Tagxedo and Voyant to make my clouds of The Red-Headed League by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Tagxedo was exceedingly simple to use, which was nice. Stop words were already included.Your creation becomes shareable on social media platforms, mugs, and t shirts. Nice feature there, as the word clouds are very pretty. You can create your own color schemes, choose what shape your cloud is, and so on. I liked that feature, but I can see how you could get carried away design wise. If you want a neon pink, mustard yellow, and brown colored Abraham Lincoln shaped visualization, it can happen. Please don’t.

Tagxedo didn’t have much function in analyzing the words. The data and stats are much more accessible via Voyant. The corpus reader section especially paired the word cloud with the text, and its search function was a strong addition to the site. Also, I liked how easy it was to edit the stop words.Voyant didn’t have as much design flair, but I thought the explicit word  breakdown made up for it.

Tagexdo WordCloud Phillips
Tagxedo Word Cloud Example: Sherlock Holmes figure and red-headed inspired text for aesthetic purposes.

There are a few points that were interesting to see across the clouds. Jabez Wilson, a minor character, appears more than major character John Watson. Vincent Spaulding, alias to criminal John Clay (spoiler alert), is virtually lost. Of course, Holmes is the major player in the word clouds. There’s heavy emphasis on “said,” in both examples, which could be because a lot of the writing in the story is dialogue based. In this story, there isn’t as much emphasis on travel. It’s based more on communication and conversation between characters. Still, like in the other works we’ve read, advertisement makes a large appearance, as does observation.

To sum up my thoughts on word clouds…They’re nice visualizations, but the writing style and voice can get lost in the singular terms. Holmes’ humor in the story is a large example. Sure, you can infer that Holmes talked a lot throughout this text, but what exactly is he saying? The story provides that context. You need the context. It’s what tells you why the words make up the word cloud.


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