Words Clouds: Form over Function

After reading an editor from the New York Times disparage the utilization of word clouds, I had similar thoughts running through my mind as I endeavored upon this assignment. What deep insight can be gained from tallying Arthur Conan Doyles’ choice of words? I chose his story A Scandal in Bohemia to investigate the importance of word clouds.

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 2.08.44 PM
The “photograph” was thematically important to the story, as the word clouds would establish

I began with Wordle, and then planned to also use Tagxedo for some word cloud fun. I chose these two based on the fact that Voyant‘s learning curve may have been longer because stop words would have to manually removed. I preferred to try to understand the first two applications thoroughly.

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I found Wordle very easy to use, and yet complex enough to change the word clouds’ appearance fairly significantly. It removes the common words automatically, although you can adjust that, as well as the font, the colors (both background and the letters) and the layout. This final option dictates how many words are included, which direction they face, and if the cloud is round or jaggedly shaped.

I began with gray and black words with a white background, remembering the design principles from class last week. This was called the Ghostly color setting. I sought to add a touch of color, and chose the Heat setting. I found this to be the most pleasing combination I had found. Finally, I wanted to make a kaleidoscope of color to test the outer bounds of the application.

Movie Poster?
Potential first draft movie poster for A Scandal in Bohemia (click to enlarge) created with Tagxedo

After learning a bit about the basics of word clouds, I hoped to create something more unique and memorable. The above word cloud was made with Tagxedo, using the sunset color scheme and aligned in the shape of Great Britain. One of the best features Tagxedo offers (which Wordle doesn’t) is the variety of shapes in which the words can be arranged. There were several geographic options, including Australia, South America and Great Britain, the latter of which was perfect considering Holmes London address. In addition to the options I did change, there were even more in the word/layout options menu on the left-hand side which I hope to investigate in the future.

Overall, this visualization tool can help to illuminate potential themes in a literary work. Photograph and Adler are two of many words that appear in the word cloud, making it clear that each is vital to the story. The confusion regarding the photo leads Doyle to increase the suspense, and Irene Adler’s name is used frequently because Holmes calls her the woman. The word cloud is simply another tool at the disposal of a digital humanities scholar.

I plan to try this with a yet-to-be decided text for exploration beyond Sherlock Holmes. Underlying themes can reveal themselves, or at the very least an artistic graphic can be created for a favorite piece of literature. Both design and literature interest me, so this was an intriguing assignment that I enjoyed thoroughly.

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