The Wonderful World of Wordle

Wordle.net is a very curious little website. The website describes itself as, “a toy for generating ‘word clouds’ from text [the user] provide[s].” That is pretty much the only way to describe Wordle that I can think of. Alright, not necessarily the best, because not everyone knows what a word cloud is, but it is certainly good for a short description. Wordle lets anyone input text in a box and it will churn out an image of all the words arranged in a picture, such as the one provided :

The US Constitution in Wordle. Taken from the Wordle.net home page.

Working Wordle is actually very simple. The home page provides a short description and puts a link right in front of the user telling the user to create their own Wordle image. The interface in the creation page is fairly simple. There are three boxes that use can put text into. The top one lets the user type in whatever he wants. The second lets the user provide a link to a blog (well any website URL will do but they recommend a blog URl). The third allows you to put in a del.icio.us username and it will create a Wordle image of their tags. After providing whatever text the user wants, they can click the button to create a Worlde. They are then provided an image and limited ways to alter the image. The user can change the color of the words and background, the font or the text layout. The user can also change around the language setting for their image. Unfortunately, I do not really know any other languages so I just kept the default English settings.

The opening monologue from the video game Fallout 3. Image created by me using a custom color palate.

Publishing and copying images is a mixed bag. For those with a blog or website, Wordle.net is very willing to give you the link and even generates the HTML code for you to just copy and paste into your blog. If you want to save the image to your hard drive though, or if you are like me and are just too stupid to use the HTML code, you have to go through a more roundabout process. The website’s FAQ tells you that in order to save an image, you will have to use a screen capture and save it that way. It is kind of a hassle, but fortunately the FAQ is rather helpful with the process.

Speaking of which, the FAQ for the site is very useful. I do not know just how helpful the troubleshooting section is, because I did not have many problems that needed to be troubleshot, but there are some useful tidbits to be found there. One example is that the more times one word appears in a text block, the larger it is going to be in the image. So if you put, “gold gold gold silver silver copper” in the text box when you create your image, the copper is going to the smallest word, the silver is going to be twice as big as the copper and the gold is going to be three times as big as the copper. Another useful tip is that you can use a tilde(~) between words keep them together when the image is generated, and Wordle will replace the tilde with a space.

The FAQ also answers some questions on what you can and cannot do with a Wordle. The creator allows for you to copy and paste your Wordles and use and sell your creations freely. The site is fairly open. The only problem is with the code. Apparently the creator, Jonathan Feinberg, created the code for Wordle.net while working at IBM, and his contract stipulates everything created on company time belongs to the company. So Wordle belongs to IBM.

The are a couple of issues with Wordle that stands out in my mind. The biggest that stands out for me is that Wordle has a very short memory of the images it generates. What I mean is that every time I change tabs with a new image open that I forgot to save, for some reason Wordle loses the image. I do not know if this is a problem with my browser (Safari) or a problem with the website itself. I find it hard to complain to much though because that is a negligible problem that can probably be avoided rather easily and images are often easy to recreate. Also, the site does not appear to have that problem is you change windows, so you can just create your images in a separate window and do not open a new tab in that window.

Wordle is a very simple, very easy to use toy. It is very approachable for anyone who wants to try it. The only real problem that I could see is that I cannot figure out a point to it. I sit in front of my computer screen for a couple of minutes, put something into the text box, edit it a little. I now have a nice little picture and all I can say is, “Now what?” My roommate suggested that it might be useful for advertising. I could see that, but I am personally a little put off by it from a design perspective, so I am probably going to approach that suggestion with caution. It is, for me, a toy. Something you play around with for a couple of minutes, maybe return to once or twice, share it with your friends, and forget about it. There is a rather large gallery of images created by users, so you can see what other people did with it. It is interesting and easy to use, but at the end of the day lacking any real function.

David Bowie's Suffragette City. Image by me.
Hamlet's soliloquy. Image by Anonymous.

4 Replies to “The Wonderful World of Wordle”

  1. I really love Word clouds like the ones that Wordle can create. They instantly visualize what could be a dense text and bring forth the key points.

    As I wrote in my post about Many Eyes, visualization is key for anyone on the Web. But when dealing with historians, whose work can be especially dense, using a tool like Wordle or Many Eyes could easily make or break an online project.

    Nice job summarizing the features, Jared!

  2. I have a hard time understanding the point of word clouds. They serve little practical use in my mind. Some of the better laid out clouds can be fun to look at, and Wordle is certainly fun to play around with, but I am usually left the question of what next? To make a pop culture reference, I sort of feel like there is just some step missing in my mind between create word cloud and profit. But to each their own.

  3. Hi Jared,

    I agree with your view of word clouds. While reading your post, I kept on thinking about how such a tool did not seem to serve a purpose other than presenting a pretty picture at the end. I do appreciate Ethan's point that a word cloud could help bring attention to key points in an argument, but I am not fully convinced that seeing frequently used words alone could help someone decipher a thesis from a dense argument. Nice post though Jared, and on a more random note, I appreciate that you entered Bowie's Suffragette City into a word cloud.

  4. As a rhetorical tool, Wordle can, as Ethan explains, illuminate those key points or words in any given text. In my opinion, that's about all it can do. It's a supplementary tool to give a visual representation to strengthen a rhetorical argument or thesis, and I don't mean the argument or thesis within the particular words in the word cloud. Let's say that I run a regression of various documents in a rhetorical study to find out those words that an author uses most and find that one or two words are used with greater or lesser frequency over time. I can explain in an essay on rhetorical history how an author seems to emphasize certain words more frequently in texts over time and show graphs of the regression tables. I can even provide my own explanation for such rhetorical anomalies, though my own words can be quite boring to read (as evidenced in this paragraph), but would it be helpful to the reader to actually see a picture that illustrates my thesis? Maybe. What words did I over-emphasize in this paragraph?

    Let's see – http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/3068335/Rhetorica

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