Posts Tagged ‘Digg’

Oh! How The Diggs Stack Up (And Swarm)

July 26, 2006

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.

For those of us who forgot to take our web2.0-hyperbole pills this morning, this means that they’ve finally released stack and swarm.

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:

Stack

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:

Swarm

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.

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What Are (Digg) Friends For?

July 21, 2006

Until recently, I was a passive reader of digg.com. Oh, sure, I subscribed to the front page RSS feed in Firefox, and every few days I might check for interesting stories. However, all that changed a few weeks ago when I subscribed and started digging stories.

Digg homepageIn case you’re one of those who don’t yet know what all the fuss is about, Digg is one of the most popular of the new wave of user-driven news sites. Initially it focussed solely on tech news, but it has recently expanded to include a range of more traditional news topics: current affairs, science, entertainment, financial news, etc.

What sets digg apart from other news sites is user-driven content. The idea is simple: users submit stories and other users vote up (digg) all the stories they’ve enjoyed reading. The most “dugg” stories rise to the top and appear on the homepage, where they receive a massive amount of traffic.

To be honest, I joined digg because it added to my ever-increasing arsenal of advanced work-avoidance strategies. I’m a gamer, and digg appealed to me partly because it reminded me of gaming. For example, there’s competition to see who can submit a hot story first, and there’s the ensuing rivalry between digg users to see if their stories can get the most diggs. In a way, digg is like an abstract MMORPG, with the number of stories dugg to the front acting as “level ups”, and digg friends acting as a kind of “guild”. (Yeah, it’s a stretch, but bear with me because it might be relevant later on.)

A couple of weeks ago I started using the “Friends” feature myself. This is a staple of the new breed of “Web 2.0” websites, which are built around the notion that we want to share everything with our online buddies. But what does it mean to be a “friend” of another digger?

This question was highlighted yesterday by this (now super-popular) digg story:

Top 100 Digg Users Control 56% of Digg’s Homepage Content

Like the title says, a relatively small group of “elite” diggers control more than half of the stories which appear on digg’s homepage. One of the allegations in the comments (though not in the article itself) is that the friends networks of top diggers allows them to maintain a stranglehold on front page content.

The strangest thing about digg friendship is that, unlike the real world, it is not reciprocal; it’s not a relationship. You can add as many friends as you like, but they are under no obligation to add you. This is unlike myspace, for example, where friends must be mutual or not at all. Mutual friendships can be formed on digg, but you’re never notified if someone adds you as a friend (you have to check your account manually).

So what benefits does digg friendship bring? If you befriend someone else you can see at a glance all the stories they have dugg. Theoretically, I guess this is supposed to work like a recommendation system: there are far too many stories on digg to trawl through each one (although some of the elite users give it a pretty good shot). Ideally, the friend system should work like a filter. You befriend someone who shares your interests, or whose submitted stories you’ve dugg in the past, and this acts as a sort of guarantee; most stories dugg by that user should be interesting to you also.

How does all this relate to elite digg users? Well, a story needs only around 30-40 diggs within Digg's top usersa short space of time to rise to the front page. If the friends of top users constantly cross-digg each others’ stories, this ensures that their stories will always (or almost always) rise to the top. The claim is that they are acting as de facto editors of the digg.com homepage. The question then becomes: is digg really any different from a traditional news site (apart from the fact that it’s not paying the editors)?

But the idea that this is a bad thing is based on the myth that Digg is (or should be) fundamentally democratic, when in actual fact it is a meritocracy. This was pointed out in the comments section of the digg article, but it’s self-evident: the concept of “digging” is essentially meritocratic. The idea is that some stories will rise to the top of the pile while others will sink. Of course, digg is a democracy in the sense that one user’s digg is worth exactly the same as any other. But, as with any social network, those with more time on their hands are able to make their votes go further. Moreover, like most modern MMORPGs, a “guild” of friends is more powerful than a single user digging alone. (Okay, so the analogy is still a stretch, but you get the idea…)

In any case, would the supposed utopia of a “truly free” and democratic digg actually be interesting to read? Taken to its logical conclusion, this simply means turning digg into another news aggregator, with stories submitted by users instead of newswire. But this wouldn’t be digg, and it wouldn’t be possible to sort the wheat from the chaff. The bottom line is that many of the stories suggested by the top users are in fact interesting; they wouldn’t be dugg so highly if they weren’t.

Still, there are some less radical and more interesting suggestions in the comments section which are aimed at redressing the balance. For example, discarding the “friends” feature altogether; or hiding the identity of the submitter until the story rises to the homepage. I like the last idea in particular, since it emphasizes the stories over the users, but still allows users to be identified with their stories once the best ones have come to the front.

Equally, though, there are some awful suggestions which would, to my mind, only make things worse: more points-based systems, in particular, are a no-go as far as I’m concerned. If a user gets minus points for digging poorly performing articles, that means only the big name articles will ever be dugg, so you’d get an even more powerful elite editing cabal.

What I think is most interesting about this story is that it highlights the more general issue of online communication in the Web 2.0 age. If digg friendship is not necessarily reciprocal, how will this affect our online communication in the future? Web 2.0 social networking sites have the capacity to connect us to more people than ever. But are we actually “connecting” in any meaningful sense of the word? Or is it rather the case that we’re all in one big room shouting at each other? “This link is cool!” “Read this blog!” “Check out this weird news story!” As Mike Shea asked recently in his blog, just how much unactionable content can we process?

Faced with this onslaught of information competing for our attention, are we just paying attention to whoever shouts the loudest?