Yesterday, digg.com launched “labs“, a suite of tools designed to help diggers interactively visualize what goes on beneath the surface of the digg community…
…At least, that’s how diggtheblog put it.
Both tools represent activity on digg.com in real-time. Like digg spy (which has been around for a while), they show which stories are being dugg by which users “as it happens”.
Unlike spy, stack and swarm are a masterclass in the sleek and sexy–yet tastefully minimal–philosophy of webpage design. They are the epitome of the “none more AJAX” credo that inspires the countless digg-clones and digg/del.icio.us hybrids which are right now clogging up our internet. But let’s not be too harsh; I haven’t even shown you what they look like yet.
Stack depicts digg stories as coloured bars which scroll along the bottom of the screen. Diggs fall down from the top of the screen and stack up on the bars. On the image below, you’ll see I’ve subtly highlighted the falling diggs in red and given them swooshy speed-lines to simulate the experience you’d get if you could be bothered to click on the link two paragraphs up:
Did I mention this is an interactive visualization? No? Well, it is. You can pause it if it’s going too fast; or you can zoom in to see stories in more “detail” (though quite how much detail is required of a block of colour and a line of white text is yet to be determined). Finally, you can click on the story bar itself and it fills the screen–in a sexy, flowy way, of course–to give you more information and a link to the story.
Swarm, meanwhile, represents stories as white circles surrounding text. Individual yellow diggers swarm round and “link” to a particular story as diggs happen on the site:
The size of the digger bears some relation to how many stories they’ve dugg in the recent past. The idea is that serial diggers–who simply cruise the site digging anything they see without reading or commenting on the story–can be weeded out and mercilessly mocked by the digg community. Or something.
Like stack, swarm allows you to click on a story to read more information. You also have the option to keep a story on the screen, or to “kill it”. If you leave swarm running, stories with less frequent digg activity will slowly drift offscreen. Mouse over any story and you’ll see links to all related stories; or you can drag stories around the swarm space and fling the ones you don’t like mercilessly to the side. It may not look like much in the still image above, but, believe me, it’s rather fly when it’s in motion.
But is all of this a brave step into the future of website design or just another flashy gimmick? It’s a bit of both. As it stands, neither swarm nor stack offer the functionality of the main digg site, but that’s not the point. They’re simply meant to allow a user to see, at a glance, which stories are popular right now. And they’re already working: I’ve found a few interesting stories with swarm which I had missed while browsing the regular digg site.
Looking ahead, I can imagine a website designed around something like the swarm interface, but with the added bonus of a hierarchical structure and search, so that you can find what you want quickly. The graphical representation of related stories as a faded white link is a genuinely useful feature, and one that could be further developed to adapt to your own digg preferences. Of course, the swarm-style interface is not new or unique; many of the latest web mashup sites employ a similar design (such as tagnautica, which represents a flickr search as an expandable circle of pictures). But it hasn’t yet been applied on as large a scale as it could be with digg.
For the moment, stack and swarm are an occasionally useful bit of fun. If nothing else, it’s strangely hypnotic to watch stories and users float around serenely on a black background for a few minutes. They’re also (understandably) still a little flaky round the edges; they were only released yesterday after all.