Monthly Archives: January 2009

Word Cloud Interpretation for Fun and Profit

That last blog posting generated some interest and I’ve been thinking more about the idea of word clouds as a possible adjunct to what we do as qualitative researchers.

Lois Kelly, who is a brilliant word-of-mouth marketer, had a very interesting comment and turned me on to psychologist James Pennebaker’s work. Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, has published some interesting research about his spin on content analysis. His systems counts and classifies the different types of words that people use (such as adverbs, adjectives, verbs, and even pronouns), and also catalogs them by their different emotional implications. He has published, along with co-authors, some interesting work analyzing and comparing different types of written texts and spoken words. He had even started a business from it, selling the LIWC, or Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software program.

It is intriguing, relevant, high-end, sophisticated stuff, and I am seeing a lot of work in this area as different companies are working hard to develop software that can do sophisticated content analyses of all of the textual information contained online. Companies like netbase, AC Nielsen Buzzmetrics, Cymfony, and Motivequest are all over this emotionally-oriented, passion-and-enthusiasm content coded stuff, and for good reason. It makes good sense.

But when I was speculating about word clouds and their qualitative research usage, I was being a bit more open-ended in my ruminations. I wasn’t thinking about such well-developed systems, ones that provided you with such well though out schemata for analyzing texts.

I was thinking more about doodling. Perhaps even diddling with the doodling.

I was wondering what we could do with the simple word clouds we generate with online engines like, which I’ve been playing around with a bit after the Latin American marketing research visionary Pablo Sanchez Kohn set me up with it in one of his online experiments.

I’ve been tooling around with it, and I like it. Why? Well, the people who post it online call it a “toy” and that’s a real insight. It’s just a lot of fun to play with it. It makes decent art, too. The pictures are nice to look at. And to think with, I think. I may frame a couple, or turn them into t-shirts. Why not?

In the play, in that visual appeal, I think there is something deeper that can happen. Because we get some good analysis packed into an at-a-glance form, I think we have opportunities to use that ultimate piece of ‘software,’ the human mind and imagination, to glean insight from these word pictures. We can run poetic comparisons on these scrambled word omelets. And then we can use them to launch creative inquiries into the text. Delving deeper using all our other tools, from content analysis word counts to hermeneutic mindful deep breathing.

A couple of examples today, and then maybe a few in the next post.

Below, I have posted a couple of recent blog pages from Brandthroposophy run through the word cloud generator at I think they’re fairly easy to identify. See if you recognize them.


That one was the recent set of postings having to do with netnographic resources. It is interesting how that big http dominates the frame; the posting is full of links. But it also captures at a glance some central meaning on the page about a community of Internet research scholars coming together to offer a list of new and different places and things to study. The cloud somehow captures all of this for me rather quickly. You get the academic content, the variety of internet forms, as well as the sense of a knowledge network that is building.

Here’s another one. Do you recognize it?


For that one, I took one of my favorite postings, the sad saga about my screws from Can you see at a glance how different these two postings are? This one tells a story about Costco, please Trudy, the screws, the wall, the chair, in March. It’s all somehow squeezed in there. And nice to look at, too.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to read in my entire blog, all of the entries from day one, and then construct a single word cloud from it. The software just pulled up one page or entry at a time. That’s too bad, because it would have been exciting to see what the common words have been for the 18 months or so this blog has been in existence. I wonder…

Word cloud: toy, art, or serious research tool. Why should we have to choose?

Obama’s Inaugural Speech: A New Qualitative Analysis Method?

I have been following all of the press coverage of the Obama inauguration this week. There sure has been a lot of it.

One of the most remarkable things I’ve been seeing, repeatedly, is bloggers and different newspapers carrying reports or stories that simply enter the text of Obama’s inaugural speech into a word cloud generating program. There are many such programs available on the Internet. They often also include comparisons of the speech to other word cloud generated inaugural speeches. I’ll include an example here.

Below are the word cloud versions Obama inaugural speech, followed by George W. Bush’s inaugural speech, and Clinton’s inaugural speech.

As you can see, it makes for a quite interesting contrast. It’s almost like poetry, where we are reading the most “important” words into a sort of pattern. “Nation, common people, generation America. Today work, prosperity, spirit, world.” But we can also read in complexity, and word choice. And tell something about structure, and the relationship between words as well. And this allow comparison and contrast. Why is the word America important in Obama’s speech, but not American? Why doesn’t the word “world” appear in George Bush’s speech? And so on…




A nice, flash version, interactive word cloud that actually gives you word counts as you pass your mouse over the cloud is carried in the Toronto Star’s coverage of the Obama Inaugural word cloud. They also have some more historic speeches, like George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln. You can see that story and those clouds here.

Now, word clouds are becoming popular modes of representation, and I can’t see why we wouldn’t start to think about them as content analysis tool to bring into our qualitative research toolkit. They allow and facilitate a certain kind of graphical representation of verbal, qualitative data that make more straightforward particular kinds of comparison (like this one).

  • So, we could compare interviews with matching culture members.
  • We could compare different blog pages or newsgroup postings.
  • We could compare archival data from the same organization over time.
  • We could compare related articles by scholars with different methodological. approaches or from different paradigms.. Or the same scholar over time.

You can see where I’m going with this…right? Somebody needs to write up a rigorous methodology for analyzing word cloud output and putting it into a qualtative data analysis framework. If it’s already been done, I’d love to see it. I’ll have some more related ideas on this soon…and some more original word clouds.

The End of Academia?

Check out this book review/article on yesterday’s New York Times Opinion blog by the famous professor Stanley Fish (famous for his work on interpretive communities and reader response theory): it’s called The Last Professor.

According to the book“The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities,” by Frank Donoghue, reviewed by Prof. Fish, academic life as we know it is on its last legs. Universities are being run more like corporations, and the old style academics (who, apparently, are pretty damn useless with all their knowledge of dead languages) are soon going to be a thing of the past. What do we have instead? More lower-priced but highly skilled adjunct professors.

I have to say, this does look like the universities around us. Adjuncts are often excellent teachers, and they get paid a fraction what we full-time, research-active (and often research-inactive, ouch!) tenured faculty get paid.

The review seems to even hold up as some sort of an ideal the University of Phoenix, which makes no bones about the fact that it is all about getting people trained and on the job market, not educated in a broad-thinking sort of way.

I just have to wonder, along with many of those who commented eloquently and somewhat sadly (as if this was the first stage of mourning for this lost institution of learning), what is lost. The ability to think broadly and critically, to synthesize and draw connections, is not going to come from job training. And whither the Ph.D. in this brave new world of adjunct faculty?

Interesting questions for interesting times.

The thing I think Donoghue’s book misses is that these events tend not to progress in such a linear fashion. Perhaps on an individual level Universities can decline and fall, but on an institutional level I think we see a historical rise and fall. To me, that means we have feedback mechanisms. And in this case, I think that we need to look at the role and rise of the rating systems. Now that university quality is being rated, and full-time faculty, research productivity, inspired students, and turned-on recruiters are part of a university and a departments’ allure, then I think we’re going to continue to see famous departments and star professors playing a big part in the future of academia. And of business. And of society.

We’ve just seen one such instance in the way that Henry Jenkins was wooed away from MIT to USC’s Annenberg School. That’s not the rise of the adjunct system. That’s concrete evidence that high-level academic thinkers have more value than ever.

Don’t count the big thinkers out yet. We need them now, more than ever.

York Strike Karma

York Strike Karma Cloud

Well, sometimes it’s just hard to keep silent.

As many of you probably know, I’m a faculty member in Toronto at the business school of Canada’s third largest university, York University. As many of you probably don’t, given the international constitution of my blog audience (only a tiny, tiny minority of my readers are actually coming from Canada), York University is currently on strike — at least it is for undergraduates, about 50,000 undergraduates being affected.

There are 3340 striking teaching assistants, contract faculties and graduate assistants currently at York University. I’ve been following the strike on and off, as it started 10 weeks ago while I was away on my sabbatical travel. I’m still on sabbatical and the strike doesn’t affect me personally at all.

Scratch that. It affects me a lot.

First of all, when I go in to my office, I totally feel for the people on the picket lines. It’s obvious, even before the -20° weather set in Toronto, that they didn’t want to be there. Who would? They clearly are fighting for what they think is right. But these are tough economic times. And there are some difficult realities that all of us are having to face right now. In other words, it’s a really, really, really bad time to be striking.

My heart really goes out to the students. Our undergraduate program at Schulich has ground to a standstill. Fifty thousand students are sitting there waiting to be taught. Started classes, books are bought, tuition is paid. International students are twiddling their thumbs. If any of them want a part-time job, good luck getting it. You’re competing with the other 50,000 students, and what employer in this economic climate or any other one, is going to want to hire you knowing that within a week or two you could be called back your classes, and that will become your first priority. It’s an impossible, untenable, disgusting situation to be putting students into. It turns my stomach.

Furthermore, as an academic I can’t imagine why I would want to be unionized (I am though–no one gave me a choice). I just don’t see the point in it. I’m not a coal miner. I don’t work on some unsafe production line. I work in a business school, teaching business students. If I do my job right, and I teach my students well, and I inspire businesspeople, and I publish in the world’s top journals, and I play a part in my academic community, then why the heck would I need a union? I worked for seven years in a private American university as a junior faculty member. I sweated it out. There was no safety net. No union. And I did okay.

Let’s talk about online communities for a second. There is even a Facebook group for the parents of York students who are sick and tired of this strike. Recently, parents warned each other to think really carefully before they send their kids to York University. One parent was quoted in Toronto’s major newspaper telling other parents of that Facebook group that “the history of labor disputes really affects the learning.”

Well, duh! It sure does.

Karma is already coming to bite us back in the behind. The news story today on the front page of Toronto’s major newspaper, the Toronto Star, reports a dramatic drop in the number of students who are picking York University as their first choice for University next year.

Overall applications by high school students to universities across Ontario is actually up 1.1% over last year. But not to York.

Applications to York are down almost 15%. Not a surprise for me. I expected to drop to be even higher. I can understand why parents and students would feel threatened by this strike. It just wouldn’t make sense not to learn from the past.

So who benefits? Well, York University’s competitors in Toronto certainly did. Applications to University of Toronto are up over 4%. Applications to Ryerson University are up over 10%. And applications to the Ontario College of Art and Design are up over 20%. All of these postsecondary schools are in Toronto. The strikers handed them a huge gift. And in a tough economy, those admissions of those applications are harder to find. That money is money taken away from University, resources lost.

Where is the extra money to pay these striking workers demands going to come from? And the striking workers, who have been disrupting classes, marching in during examinations and singing songs, holding back students from Canada and around the world in their studies, messing up their summer work plans and their chances of getting hired for internships and summer positions… are they supposed to simply and seamlessly rejoin the community?

Even if the striking workers go back to work this year, the damage is done. People aren’t going to soon forget the strike of 2008 to 2009 and what it did to York University, York University students, and the future of the university.

It’s shameful.

Resources for Netnographers: A Book Section, and a Wiki (I Need Your Help)

Hello, Everyone. I know it’s a little late, but I still want to wish each one of you a very happy, healthy, and prosperous 2009. Let’s hope together that this is a good year for all of us.

I’m back, after a long, busy absence. As I wrote about in a former entry, I agreed to write a book about the netnographic approach for Sage’s Research Methods series. The book is well in progress now, but, man, is writing a book ever a lot of work. I feel like I’m writing the equivalent of an article a day.

Okay. Enough wingeing (that’s Aussie for complaining….).

It’s also awesome fun, though. I really like the idea of writing and knowing that my words are going to survive the review process and emerge intact at the other end. We’ll see. I guess that’s why I enjoy keeping this blog so much. It’s guaranteed.

I recently wrote a section about connecting with others who are doing netnographic or online ethnographic work. I thought it would be entirely appropriate to share a little bit of that section with my blog readers, and to ask for your input. I’m also hoping we can get together a mailing list of scholars and research work in this area soon. So we can all “Click Together,” you know?

What I’ve managed to collect so far is: (1) a list of different communities of scholars interested in substantial issues surrounding online communities and cultures, (2) a list of different journals that publish this sort of work, and (3) a list of academic centers where this sort of work is undertaken.

I’m sure I missed a lot of different collections of scholars (including the recent Netnography groups on Facebook and LinkedIn, which are going strong thanks to Pablo–and maybe will form the basis of that global netnographer mailing list I’ve been hoping to start). And also journals, and academic thought centers. Some of these links may even be dead already, or organizations disbanded. I’ve been so buried in my writing I haven’t had a chance to check them all out yet.

I’d love for this list to be more comprehensive and up-to-date. I would greatly, greatly appreciate your feedback and
additions. I’m interested in global communities, centers, and journals
, so this list is useful to people from all around the world. Think of this as the “wiki” section of the book, where your contributions will help everyone in the netnography and online community research community.

I’ll check out every suggestion and, hopefully, together we can make this an even more comprehensive and useful list.

If I get some suggestions and can make this more complete, I’ll republish the list on the blog so we can more widely distribute it.

Here is the section I have been working on:

“Remember that the future value of your new netnographically-derived idea or theory will lie in how broadly and deeply others are able to deploy it in their own thinking and writing. By connecting your work with a larger frame of reference of scholarly —and even not-so-scholarly — thought, you will not only be building bridges with other related literature in this area, you will also be increasing the chances that your research will impact the way that other thinkers understand the world.

In order to evaluate and extend your theoretical reach, scholars of online cultures and communities will find it very useful to consult past works in related areas and to network with scholars working in these areas. As noted by Silver (2006, p. 2; whose work enormously informed this listing to this point), scholars of online communities and cultures or “Internet studies” now have the benefit of drawing upon “a community of scholars; conferences and symposia; journals, journal articles, anthologies, monographs, and textbooks; university courses, common curriculum, and majors; theses and dissertations; theories and methodologies; and academic centers.”



(I will fill in the missing URLs a
little later)


* International Center for New Media (Austria; http://
* Center for Computer Games Research (Denmark; http://
* Oxford Internet Institute (Great Britain; http://
* Institute of Network Cultures (Netherlands; http://
* GOvCOM.ORG (Netherlands; http://


* fibreculture (Australia; http://
* Singapore Internet Research Center (http://


* Berglund Center for Internet Studies (Pacific University, USA;
* Center for Digital Discourse and Culture (Virginia Tech; http://
* Center for Women and Information Technology (University of Maryland, Baltimore
County, USA; http://
* Internet Studies Center (University of Minnesota, USA; http://
* Institute for New Media Studies (http://
* Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies (University of Washington, USA;

Thanks in advance for any assistance you can offer with this! And thanks also for sticking around through those long gaps. The Brandthroposophy blog is getting more hits than ever before. I’m amazed and humbled by the response of readers like you.