Improving the word cloud: NYT adds rates of word usage and comparisons between groups

I’m generally not a big fan of word clouds but one of students recently pointed out to me an example from the New York Times that makes some improvements: looking at the rates of word usage at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. (Click through to see the interactive graphic.) Here is how I think this improves on a typical word cloud:

1. It doesn’t display word frequency but rather the rate of the word usage. Thus, we get an idea of how often the words were used in comparison to all the words that were said. Frequencies by themselves don’t tell you much but this helps put them into a context. (A note: I would like the graphic to include the total word usage for each convention so we have a quick idea of how many words were spoken).

2. The display also makes a comparison between the two political parties so we can see the relative word usage across two groups. This could run into the same problem as frequencies – just because one group uses the term more doesn’t necessarily mean they think it is more important – but we can start getting some clues into the differences in how Republicans and Democrats made a case for their party.

Overall, this is an improvement over the typical word cloud (make your own at wordle.net) and helps us start analyzing the tens of thousands of words spoken at the conventions. Of course, we would need a more complete analysis, probably including multiple coders, to really get at what was conveyed through the words (and that doesn’t even get at the visuals, body language, presentation).

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