Monday, September 1, 2008

Wordles to the Wise

There's a guy at IBM's Collaborative User Experience research group, a senior software engineer named Jonathan Feinberg, who creates what are called "wordles"—word pictures that map the frequency of words used in a speech or, say, a nonprofit mission statement. Feinberg's idea is simple: the more frequently a word occurs, the bigger it appears.

Will wordles change the world? Hardly. But don't underestimate their power to clarify a message or spot a good (or bad) mission statement in a heartbeat.

Consider the wordle, above, of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's recently televised interview with Charles Gibson of ABC, which includes her assertion that she "knows Russia" because it is so close in proximity to her home state of Alaska. Below, take a look at a wordle of Barack Obama's acceptance speech at last month's Democratic convention in Denver. Change is big—literally (as measured by word size here)—but not as big as the word "promise."

But even wordles can't (as both Obama and John McCain have said this election season) "put lipstick on a pig." See below. It's a wordle of the mission statement for a dot-org called VBAC, a home-birth advocacy group based in the United Kingdom. The message here? A muddy mission statement is—in any form—incomprehensible.

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