Musical Tag Clouds: A New Game?

July 15, 2008

Can you guess this song? Na? Yes, na. That’s a tag cloud of “Hey, Jude” by the Beatles. I was tinkering with tag clouds one evening last month and had the goofy urge to see what the song with more than one hundred nas at the end would look like as a tag cloud. I wasn’t disappointed. You simply can’t miss the na. Of course, hey and jude are pretty obvious, too.

That prompted me to think of a nerdy little game that teens (primarily) might enjoy. Suppose people created tag clouds of various popular songs and then challenged others to guess the tune from which they had sprung.

Can you guess this song?

Of course, some titles are so much a part of their songs — with the key words repeated (or in some cases, hammered) into our ears so frequently — that it’s hard to miss the cues among the tags. Take the classic rock song from the ’70s shown at right. That title is probably easy to pick out.

Can you guess this song? Or the (mostly) instrumental marching band anthem from the 1960s [left]. Its one word tag cloud is surely the simplest ever.

But we can make this game more challenging!

See if you can pick out these next two songs. You can click through to larger versions on my Flickr page if that would help. Can you guess this song?One song came from a major rock band and the other is a tune from an “American Idol” contender.

Does that give you a sense of the game? Here are two ideas I’d like to propose:

1. A game for library teens

If you have a teen group in your library, let them pick the songs (remembering, of course, that not all lyrics have PG ratings!), give them the tools*, and let them create their own tag clouds. Can you guess this song? If you want to add a scoring element, you might award 20 points for the correct song + 10 points for the singer + 10 bonus points for guessing both within 30 seconds.

Hang the tag clouds on the wall after they’re solved. The song was already musical art. Now the words are visual art!

2. A collection for all of us

I’ve created more than a dozen musical tag clouds already. You can find them in the Musical Tag Clouds set on my Flickr page. If you (or your patrons) create* more, post them to Flickr and tag them “MusicalTagClouds”. There’s also a Flickr group with the same name. Toss in a hint if you think it’s warranted. Over time, our global collection could grow incredibly large and varied. The images would be available for a solo challenge or a classroom game at the drop of a hat. How fun it will be to randomly choose among them and try to guess the songs.

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* There are many tag cloud generators on the Internet. I used Wordle for all of mine because of the colorful and playful clouds it produced. If you find something better, go for it. Just have fun! Or, as the Beach Boys might say:
Can you guess this song?

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Learn More: Tags and Tag Clouds

December 3, 2007

[This is one in a series of self-paced discovery exercises for library staff venturing into the social web.]

We explored social bookmarking last week and briefly mentioned tags. Let’s look at tags — or folksonomies — a bit more closely now.

Formal cataloging involves experts who assign subject headings based on approved lists and hierarchical taxonomies. It’s an organized and presumably consistent way of storing and retrieving materials and information. But there are many ways of classifying things. I might look at a photograph of a lake in winter and think of the words lake, frozen, and cold. You might prefer lake, winter, and ice. We often rely on experts to iron out our differences. Unless we think like the expert who cataloged the item, however, we still might not find what we’re looking for.

Now suppose everyone participated in cataloging. You might imagine people attaching notes to everything (much like the two girls in a delightful video from Harris County Public Library). With folksonomies, you tag things the way you want, and I tag them the way I want. If enough people participate, we might collectively describe any content with greater depth, color, and nuance than formal subject headings.

Consider J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The book’s formal cataloging in WorldCat shows:

Caulfield, Holden (Fictitious character), Runaway teenagers – Fiction, New York (N.Y.) – Fiction

The collective input of 1000+ people tagging the book in LibraryThing offers all these words:

Because content creators and users generate the tags, folksonomies often present information that the average person finds most relevant. Visual representations of tags (like the one from LibraryThing shown above) are called tag clouds and may give us even more information because they display frequently-tagged words in larger fonts. More people thought those words were important.

Visitors to social networking sites tag content for their own reasons. Each person adds words relevant to him/her, and the aggregation has a powerful organizing effect. If you’d like to know more about tagging and organizing digital information, I recommend Everything is Miscellaneous [LibraryThing/WorldCat], a very readable book by David Weinberger.

Meaning for libraries

Libraries cannot possibly classify everything. Even the enormous Library of Congress (with several hundred catalogers sorting through about 7,000 new books each day) could not handle the volume of Flickr, the photo-sharing website we discussed a few weeks ago. Flickr receives a few thousand photographs every minute. Tagging makes possible the organization of all those pictures.

YouTube members tag videos; Delicious users tag websites; LibraryThing members tag books; bloggers tag their posts. Tagging is everywhere on the social web.

It’s vital for library staff to understand tags. They should know the strengths: that tags accumulate quickly and offer a wide range of keywords. They should be aware of the weaknesses, too: tags can be ineffective when very few people are involved and offer inconsistent word choices (examples: Should we search car, cars, or auto?; Which meaning of the word spring was intended?).

Libraries might also explore ways to incorporate tags into software where appropriate. Some libraries have or soon will have tags and tag clouds in their catalogs. My own library has tags on its staff intranet site.

Learn more by participating

You’ve read enough by now, so this week’s activity can be done in short exploratory sessions of mouse clicking.

  • Explore your Flickr tag cloud. Assuming you created an account for an earlier lesson, log into your Flickr account and go to the “Your Tags” option in the “You” menu. This cloud was assembled with the tags you added to your own photographs. Common themes among photos shine through. Click any word to find all photographs marked with that tag.
  • Look at Flickr’s communal tag cloud. This will call up other Flickr members’ photos. It’s great for browsing, but there’s a search box, too, in case the word you’re looking for isn’t there.
  • Explore tags in your Delicious account. (That was a previous lesson, too.) Your tags appear in a clickable list or cloud on the right side of the screen. You may also click the “saved by X other people” link shown for any particular bookmark and see the collected tags from everyone else who saved that bookmark. Click one that interests you and see what other sites come up.
  • Add more tags to your Flickr photos and Delicious bookmarks. It will make them easier to find and others to stumble upon.
  • Explore Dave Pattern’s biblioblogosphere tag cloud. Pattern’s software regularly scans library blogs and updates the communal tag cloud. A glance at the cloud can give you a sense of the topics librarians around the world are currently chattering about. Clicking any word in the cloud takes you to those blogs doing the chattering.
  • Create a text cloud. Just for fun, copy the text of a long memo or email into TagCrowd and see the cloud it produces. The longer the text, the more likely the prominent words will be meaningful.

Mashing LibraryThing and Polaris

October 8, 2007

The other day I mentioned computer code with which Polaris was toying to add more “funability” (Tim Spalding’s word) to the library catalog. Here’s how it would work:


Let’s say you bring up Lois Lowry’s The Giver. The first part of that bibliographic record is straight out of the library’s PAC, but nicely tucked below is a tag cloud piped in from LibraryThing‘s database of 25 million tags. Catalog users would get great visual cues about the book from the few thousand readers who tagged their own copy of the book in LibraryThing.

The words are not fixed LC subject headings. They were entered by readers of the book. That means the words will more likely relate to the readers browsing your catalog. There’s real benefit to that. (LC subject headings are still available in the PAC’s detailed view, mind you. For The Giver, they lead off with “Euphemism” and “Euthanasia”. Yawn.)

But the fun doesn’t stop there…


Click one of the tags and some LibraryThing javascript (inspired by LightBox) generates a long list of books that best match that particular tag. Who made that list? Everyone who tagged their own books. It’s an example of social website collaboration.  Tim Spalding has done such a remarkable job finding relationships in all his data crunching that the results are eerily good. What’s more, the titles returned from LibraryThing seamlessly filter out books not in your library’s catalog. Your patrons won’t be bogged down with stuff they can’t readily get their hands on. They can also continue clicking and browsing.

Tim described this concept months ago and has been able to tack it onto the catalogs of a few individual libraries already. I previously mentioned Danbury as the first example but, as far as I know, Bryan Rubenau at Polaris is the first to write code toward fully implementing this stuff into the guts of an ILS software package. His preliminary code rocks. If it goes into a future upgrade*, catalog users might soon search the reader-contributed tags (like “chick lit”) just as easily as they search titles, authors, and subject headings.

Impressed? Join the club.


*At the moment, Polaris is looking into the specific requirements for integration and asking its customers if they’re interested. There’s no formal partnership between LibraryThing and Polaris.