Let me start with a question – what is the collective noun for clouds? In trying to dream up a catchy title for this post, which you will discover once I’ve stopped waffling is about Word Clouds, I tried to discover from colleagues and places like answers.com what you call a collection of clouds. Answers received so far: a host, a storm, a front, and the one I chose – a cloud. I’m sure someone out there will be able to put me right on this, I’ll be monitoring the comments with interest.
Anyway, why am I so interested in [word] clouds all of a sudden? Well its is not all of a sudden, I’ve been interested word/tag clouds as a device for serendipitous browsing through a set of meta data based upon the popularity of words within, or tags associated with, information, for a while.
The thing that triggered me to write this post was the appearance of a word cloud on the site for the BBC’s radio station Radio 1. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you should see a display of the most popular words contained in SMS text messages sent to the station. This is refreshed every couple of minutes or so, so gives an insight in to what the station’s audience is thinking about. With the station receiving often in excess of 1,000 messages per hour, the theme behind the words displayed is an aggregate of a fair amount of input. The tool that displays this also checks for well know words, like the name of a group or DJ, and makes them a clickable link to more information.
The thing that struck me about this implementation is that the BBC just put it there with no explanation or hints, expecting that their online audience will understand that words in larger fonts are more popular than others in smaller fonts and the ones in blue are clickable. Not that many months ago I remember having to explain those concepts to those seeing Flickr and del.icio.us tag clouds for the first time.
The Web 2.0/Library 2.0 world is one where new user interface metaphors appear and become accepted very rapidly. Although, I am still aware of some libraries who shy away from making changes to their OPACs until ‘there has been training‘. All I can say to such organizations is that I think you will find your online audience is more astute and open to change than you think. By all means offer some ‘How to get the most from the new features’ sessions, but if you have to train in the basics you have probably got your interface wrong.
Another thing that made me think about word clouds today, was a comment that somebody made in a telephone conversation about the Aquabrowser OnLine trials of libraries, such as Islington Libraries, who have contributed to the Talis Platform, that I posted about the other day. The comment passed on from a further education college was that the word cloud in the Aquabrowser OnLine interface could be of great help to those with dyslexic problems identifying different spellings etc. Another good example of how offering access to data by using new and innovative user interface metaphors, in addition to the traditional ones, can have unexpected beneficial consequences.