They first caught our attention last week, during the royal wedding—which is saying something. "How does Twitter see the Royal Wedding?" asked The Guardian over at its data blog, and it answered the question with an interactive image featuring most-used words on Twitter—Kate, William, watching, moment, and so on. Each word occupied a bubble, and the bubbles clustered together and wobbled around, linked by little spindles. Mouse over a bubble, and the source tweets that fed data on that given word sprung up. The whole thing had a biological vibe—datavisualization as mitosis.
The source for the image was Infomous, a service powered by the Cambridge, MA-based Icosystem. Intrigued, we caught up with some of the folks behind Infomous to find out what makes their dataviz tool so fun and addictive.
"We originally developed Infomous to help an advertising agency visualize opinions about brands by scraping consumer comments from blogs and other web sites," Infomous's Paolo Gaudiano tells Fast Company. "Our philosophy was to create a simple algorithm that does not try to 'understand' language, but simply provides a quick snapshot and allows the user to explore for further understanding. We later realized that many sources of information on the web bombard us with large amounts of text, so we expanded Infomous to capture various online formats, including RSS and Twitter feeds."
Word clouds, of course, and even so-called "social analytics," are nothing new—so what is it about Infomous's design that makes it stand out? "For one thing, we haven't really seen any clouds that offer the level of interactivity that Infomous offers, including seeing the pop-up list of sources and being able to remove words or focus in on words," Gaudiano says. "Another thing is that by not trying to 'understand' the text, the processing is very fast and language-independent. But we think that the most significant factor is that in addition to seeing Infomous clouds on publisher sites, people will be able to create and edit their own clouds, and they will be able to embed clouds they create on any web site easily."
In some ways, Gaudiano's explanation of his own creation is only part of it. Infomous's word-cloud-analytics seems the first that captures the extent to which Twitter is a living, breathing thing, an almost organic entity where everything is connected, where if you pull on one word, dozens of others follow.
Infomous is currently made with Flash; Gaudiano says he and the team are working on an HTML5 version, and are also working on an iteration that's more suitable for use on tablets and smartphones. For all its exposure, Infomous hasn't officially launched yet; they have a whole list of last features they'd like to implement, but they hope to officially open shop in June.
How will it make money? Currently, they plan on delivering text-based ads, like in-search advertising (you may see little banner ads at the top of the overlays that come up when you mouse over a keyword). Users can also pay a fee to have an ad-free experience.