This blog will look at the strengths and the weaknesses of word clouds. We will look at how helpful of a tool it can be for historians, as well as for others who encounter it in their studies or leisure.
Word cloud has become a popular tool of choice when identifying common words within many different sources. The tool provides the reader with an idea of how frequently certain words occur within a particular text. The more common the word, the bigger the word is in size. Lesser common words are noticeably smaller in size, especially as you go down in frequency. This system of size is handy, and makes differentiating a simpler task.
For historians this tool can be useful, as it saves them the time and effort of reading through sources that may seem helpful, but have little relevance to what they are researching. It allows historians to decide which sources are of more importance, and what could potentially be extracted from them. Another way in which the tool is useful is the simplicity of it. Historians in cases are guilty of being easily turned off by technology that proves difficult to understand. This tool is basic to the eye, and makes it easy to identify a sense of what the source could contain.
On the other hand, this basic nature may well reduce its usefulness for other historians. The fact that only words are provided, means that any real sense of context is lacking. Yes, the historian knows what to briefly expect, but does not really gain an understanding of how these words are being used. The randomness may not be as helpful as some think. Also, this tool has a chance of picking out a variety of random words which are meaningless. Words such as ‘the, and ‘because’ are likely to be frequent, and therefore unhelpful since they serve no historical purpose. Sometimes word cloud could be programmed to filter out these undesirable instances, however there are still chances that unhelpful words may continue to feature. The chances of benefitting from this tool vary every time it is used, so patience and caution is required for historians who are thinking if using it.
Overall, it is fair to say that the helpfulness of this tool solely relies on how and why it is being used. If a historian is using the tool as a basic guide to give them rough ideas on what to expect, then it may well be useful. However if expectations are set higher, and historians use this for getting a clear idea on a sources contents, then problems may arise. This is since one word and its size alone does not really have a context or explain anything. With this in mind, historians could use the source, or decide to try elsewhere and see if other tools similar to word cloud can provide a better service.