We’ve been having a debate in the office about the merits of Wordle. These are Russ’ thoughts.
Russ Wilson writes:
Wordle, word clouds, Tagxedo: all online apps for taking a load of data in the form of words and presenting it in a design friendly way. As a lover of language I’m all for anything that encourages people to explore words, think about how and why they’ve been used and analyse their meanings. However I’m not really sure that any of these tools do this.
I have two main issues with Wordles, and they’re exemplified in the wordle above, based on David Cameron’s coalition speech. First, they remove the word from its immediate context. Take the word interest, represented as one of the more frequently occurring words. But it could equally indicate curiosity and engagement or interest payments. The Wordle doesn’t help; it only tells us the word occurred often in the speech. Similarly, coalition also figures prominently. But it doesn’t help with context. We can’t tell, for example, whether they said ‘this is a coalition’ or ‘this is not a coalition’!
The second issue is that frequency is being proposed as an indicator of importance, but that’s not how we actually interpret speech. Imagine a Wordle which captures responses to a question such as ‘What do you think of the coalition?’ One person might say the new government is ‘absolutely the most important and exciting change in politics in living memory’; others might respond that it is ‘quite troubling’, ‘not very troubling’ or even ‘not troubling’? The Wordle would look, well, troubling:
Frequency of use is simply that – frequency of use.
Wordles do look good. But they become dangerous when presented as meaningful analysis. They don’t tell the right story, and worse, they are also capable of telling a completely different story altogether. Yet the mainstream media are happy to present them as semi-serious analysis: The Guardian says that from its Wordles for Nick Clegg and David Cameron’s acceptance speeches ‘you can get a good idea of the two leaders’ use of language – and which words were important to them’. As a linguist I know there are many ways to explore their language use, but I don’t think I would include a Wordle as a method of analysis or of display. Their visual appeal gives them more credence than they deserve.
As a final test, here is a Wordle of this post – do you think it reflects the views I’ve expressed above?