Whither Tag Clouds?

A few weeks ago, one could do relatively little clicking around the interwebs and notice the tear of pretty tag clouds powered by wordle. Bloggers of all stripes posted a wordle of their blog. Some, like Jeff Jarvis, mused about how the visualizations represent “another way way to see hot topics and another path to them.”

For as long as tag clouds have been a feature of the web, they’ve also been an object of futurist optimism, kindling images of Edward Tufte and notions that if someone could just unlock all those dense far-flung pages of information, just present them correctly, illumed, people everywhere would nod and understand. Their eyes would grow bright, and they would smile at the sheer sense it all makes. The headiness of a folksonomy is sweet for an information junkie.

It’s in that vein that ReadWriteWeb mythologizes the tag cloud as “buffalo on the pre-Columbian plains of North America.” A reader willing to cock his head and squint hard enough at the image of tag clouds “roaming the social web” as “huge, thundering herds of keywords of all shades and sizes” realizes that the Rob Cottingham would have us believe that tag clouds were graceful and defenseless beasts—and also now on the verge of extinction. He’s more or less correct.

I used to mythologize the tag cloud, but let’s be honest. They were never actually useful. You could never drag and drop one word in a tag cloud onto another to get the intersection or union of pages with those two tags. You could never really use a tag cloud to subscribe to RSS feeds of only the posts with a given set of tags.

A tag also never told you whether J.P. Morgan was a person or a bank. A tag cloud on a blog was never dynamic, never interactive. The tag cloud on one person’s blog never talked to the tag cloud on anyone else’s. I could never click on one tag and watch the cloud reform and show me only related tags, all re-sized and -colored to indicate their frequency or importance only in the part of the corpus in which the tag I clicked on is relevant.

But there’re also a cool-headed thoughts to have here. If tag clouds don’t work, what will? What is the best way to navigate around those groups of relatively many words called articles or posts? In the comments to Jarvis’s post, I asked a set of questions:

How will we know when we meet a visualization of the news that’s actually really useful? Can some visualization of the news lay not just another path to the “hot topic” but a better one? Or will headlines make a successful transition from the analog past of news to its digital future as the standard way we find what we want to read?

I believe the gut-level interest in tag clouds comes in part from the sense that headlines aren’t the best way to navigate around groups of articles much bigger than the number in a newspaper. There’s a real pain point there: scanning headlines doesn’t scale. Abstracting away from them, however, and focusing on topics and newsmakers in order to find what’s best to read or watch just might work.

I think there’s a very substantial market for a smarter tag cloud. They might look very different from what we’ve seen, but they will let us see at a glance lots of information and help us get to the best stuff faster. After all, the articles we want to read, the videos we want to watch, and the conversations we want to have around them are what’s actually important.

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