Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Wordle: Blogger profile

Take 3 . . . with Jonathan Feinberg

Wordle started, according to its creator, Jonathan Feinberg, as a personal project. But it was such an interesting project that Feinberg convinced his employer, IBM Research, to let him create it on company time. These days Wordle seems to be everywhere, and even CNN is getting in on it, displaying President Obama's press conferences and speeches in word clouds to highlight the words he uses most often. (I'm waiting for aneurysm to show up in Obama's word cloud.)

Jonathan, whose Wordle blog includes a Darth Vader helmet-shaped word cloud inspired by his son, graciously answered a few questions from a word nerd:

1. Is Wordle an expression of your personal fondness for words, is it word art, or something else?

JF: I still stand behind my characterization of Wordle as a "toy"; that is, it's something to be played with and enjoyed. I do love letter shapes, as an artful activity, but I don't believe that a Wordle is "art". I'd call it, instead, an "artifact" of a process that's influenced by the person using the software.

Wordle is also very much an expression of my love of programming. It's rather a complicated computer program (at least by my standards of complexity), and it inherently gives me pleasure to have made it.

2. After the most recent presidential press conference, CNN showed a Wordle display of Barack Obama's most used terms. When did you notice that Wordle was catching on in a big way?

JF: There have been several large waves since Wordle first came out in June of 2008. The first came right away, when the superb "Information Aesthetics" blog gave me a nice mention. But the first time I knew that Wordle was accessible to more ordinary folks--not just visualization wonks and internet addicts--was when I started getting emails from Rosie O'Donnell fans. I was especially tickled to get an email from Rosie herself.

The most interesting and sustained reaction has been from teachers around the world, who have taken to Wordle as an educational tool.

3. One of my favorite quotes is from the 1980s movie The Last Emperor, in which Peter O'Toole, as Emperor Pu Yi's tutor, says, "A man must say what he means, or he may not mean what he says." Do you have a favorite quote about words and their importance?

In the beginning people spoke with their eyes
Harder to make excuses, harder to tell lies
Easier to say everything in a blink of an eye

Through my eyes take a look into what I feel
Contradictions aside, pain and joy are both real
Through my eyes take a look silence will be heard
I won't hide from your questions, I won't say a word

My words can lead you away from the truth
Where you'll arrive I have not a clue
Follow my eyes into a promised land
Then look around; you are home again

Sun rose and sun set, people spoke with their hands
Signing in pictures comes to neighboring lands

Then all the words came and filled up the brains
Such small ideas filling so much space
Then satellites spread them into the hills
Every canyon and stream is full

My words can lead you away from the truth
Where you'll arrive I have not a clue
Follow my eyes into a promised land
Then look around; you are home again

--Johnny Tibet

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