This cool tag cloud is from Wordle. Clicking on it takes you to the Wordle site. The image here is generated out of the text of a paper I wrote on Ranciere. Also, here's some advice: always save your post even if you think you already did. I just wrote a long post on tag clouds and lost it. I'm pretty bummed but hope I can retrieve the ideas. Of course, the one that got away was brilliant, original, and insightful. This one can only pale in comparison to the one that was lost.
Tag clouds are symptoms of the decline of symbolic efficiency.
The meaning of words is not at stake in tag clouds. Meaning is replaced by frequency, proximity, and duration. Which words are repeated the most and in what combinations? The combination of these elements determine intensity--if something is only present once, it doesn't count, isn't counted. Words matter, words and themes. Not sentences and not stories or narratives. People always get the story wrong, anyway. Tag clouds exemplify this loss of a space of meaning, of a language constituted out of sentences that are uttered in contexts according to rules that can be discerned and contested.
What's lost? The ability to distinguish between contestatory and hegemonic speech. Irony. Tonality. Normativity (how can there be an ethics of the address if the words are not part of an address, if they are extracted from their position within speech acts to become artifacts and toys?). Critique. The terms prominent in a discourse can be discerned, but not what they mean, not even in relation to each other. We don't know the rules governing truth and falsity, which may suggest that there are no rules (other than those of frequency, proximity, and duration). Note that frequency can be citational or monological, that is, it can come from circulation or from self-repetition. Message force multipliers are more important than the message. Tag clouds capture the shift from message to contribution characteristic of communicative capitalism.
Tag clouds are indicative of secondary orality. They are part of a post-literate age, the age of mass, participatory, contributory, combinatory media. They are closer to a podcast than they are to a written text: the conventions of oral speech require repetition, conventional phrases, opposition. Rather than a formation that relies on meaning, signification, and interpretation (and is hence available to deconstruction), secondary orality values the word as image. The image doesn't stand in for or provide a prosthetic word. It marks a feeling, an intensity. It doesn't ask that the viewer understand it. All the viewer is expected to do is register that the word has been, that it has appeared. The word become image is a feeling-impulse, like a badge. It's identificatory, relying on an identity between word and object. The word-image is this impulse-identity.
(This word-image was prefigured in the avant garde art from the late 19th and early 20th century. I have in mind the wonderful word-images of the Russian communist and Soviet revolutionary artists. On the one hand, this word-art was effective precisely because of its revolutionary impulse, its challenge to the status quo of late Russian painting. It performed the revolution, disrupting prior meanings. On the other, precisely because it depended on its context for its performative efficacy it reinforced the fact of symbolic meaning in order not just to disrupt it but to bring about a new meaning, a new world, a new man. The point wasn't just to destroy meaning. It was to change it. Tag clouds aren't revolutionary. They are elements of communicative capitalism, elements that reinforce the collapse of meaning and argument and thus hinder argument and opposition. Any words are part of a tag cloud. You can make a new one out of speeches from Kennedy and Khrushchev, Ann Coulter and Coretta Scott King.)
One can't argue with a tag cloud. It doesn't take a position. It marks a moment. It registers aspects of the intensity of that moment: repetition entails intensity, in this equation. But one doesn't know why or whether it's called for or what it's in relation to. It's just intense. The tag cloud might transmit the intensity, it might incite a feeling or a response, but it doesn't invite the interrogation of that response or what induced it. It offers representation without understanding: here are the issues to be aware of.
Tag clouds are elements in a formation that also includes: the archive (the capacity to store and sort), retrieval (can we get back what we've stored?), combination and remixing (can we do something else with it?), and mobility (can we send it?). They are like a mobius strip where meta-data becomes noise: "she said a lot about politics and democracy."
Examples: coverage of the Obama inauguration tried to predict his themes and then counted his words. Would he say God? Notice how the themes tended to be single words: unity, responsibility, change. What those meant mattered less than the utterance of words. Notice as well that some coverage compared different presidential speeches by counting the appearances of words. Who said peace the most? Who mentioned the poor?
One from college life: student papers that repeat words, the words of text and of a course, but have sentences that don't work, that don't function, that lose the grammaticality and structure that make them a sentence, that become basically marks registering the presence of words. Students often think of texts in terms of quantity: "the author talks at length about."