Reading “Through” the Lines with Voyant Tools

by Annie Li

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We’ve all heard the term “reading between the lines” before—chances are, your elementary school teachers bombarded you with it soon after you first mastered “reading on the lines.” Don’t just read for literal events; look for implications and make inferences! Sound familiar?

It never ended for us, though. As arts and humanities students, we likely find ourselves using close-reading strategies every time we approach a writing assignment. Well, after doing the Week 9 readings, I come bearing news both good and bad: now, with online reading and text analysis technology such as Voyant Tools, we can go even further when exploring texts, and turn their words into analyzable data. The bad news? Uh… more work for us arts kids, I guess? (It’s okay, though; computers are magical and do most of the work for you.)

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Voyant Tools’ homepage

The related article from our readings displays the analysis of a 2008 speech by Barack Obama as well as of another delivered by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The comparison of the two corpora reveals the different way each man’s speech approaches the topic of race; there are differences just a tad too subtle to be picked up on by the average audience member. I was curious to see for myself how the system works, beginning the moment a user plugs their text into the content box and clicks “Reveal.” I chose to upload my first Bae Banter post to Voyant Tools to see which features would be truly useful to me in terms of my everyday work.

Click here to view my exported Voyant Tools and Data page.

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Word cloud from “Cirrus” feature

“This corpus has 1 document with 841 total words and 419 unique word forms,” the first line in the “Summary” section tells me. I pasted the entire body of my post, including image captions, into the text analyzer. The top left corner of the Voyant page displays a “Cirrus” feature, which houses a word cloud—it looks quite similar to the ones we’ve explored in class, via Wordle. There’s also an option to see the word frequency in a list format, which effectively supplements the word cloud.

The bottom right section of the page shows all the different contexts under which a single word is used. In my blog post, “Bentham” is the most frequently used word—this makes a lot of sense, considering my focus was Transcribe Bentham, a crowdsourcing and transcription project involving the works of philosopher Jeremy Bentham. With the “Context” box, I can now isolate particular terms and ask how I use them. For example, I use “Bentham” twelve times in my post, but in one sentence I quote the man’s wise words, and in another, I talk about memes.

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 4.29.18 PMTo be perfectly honest, as a second-year undergraduate student, I doubt I’d find a lot of use in every single one of the features that Voyant Tools has to offer. The feature I’d use the most in my daily academic life would probably be the “Phrases” section, which is activated by a button two away from “Summary.” This feature shows repeating phrases as well as the word length of said phrases. I feel like I often lack self-consciousness when it comes to analyzing my writing style—if my most-used mannerisms are laid out for me, I’m forced to detach from my own subjective perspective and be more critical of the redundant phrases I tend to go back to.

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 4.28.34 PMClearly, Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell knew what they were doing when they launched Voyant. The very fact that they (as digital humanists) were able to take a digital platform they’d created and produce novel political commentary should be impressive to anyone. The objective data that Voyant Tools extracts may push us to think about the more subliminal intentions of written works, and the ways in which the design of texts can influence us as readers.


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