Data Visualization Methods: Lijit, Twitter and Digg Edged Out by Lee Byron

September 3rd, 2007

Creating ways to visually represent the social map seems very much in vogue. It makes sense in a certain way; there is a lot of dispersed content on the web and good business to be had aggregating it. Visually presenting the relationships among pieces of content- and the users that put it there- can help people sort through it all.

Lijit and Twitter both just launched visualization tools that are interesting and have neat animation, but also point to how hard it is figuring out what kinds of data are can be visualized well.

lijit.jpgLijit’s visualizer shows linking relationships between a user and the rest of the Internet. Lijit’s focus is on bringing out content that might be hard to aggregate otherwise, so I can understand the value in trying to bring together inbound, outbound and mutual linking relationships on one page.

The resulting animation isn’t hugely meaningful, though. For example, this blog isn’t really linked from anywhere, so there is no benefit to the animation- it just shows what is in the blogroll on the page. The other blog I write, Startup Review for doesn’t link to anything else, so it only shows a handful of inbound links. And a very popular blog like Brad Feld’s has three different clusters of lollipops, but they’re still just lollipops. They don’t offer any information that you couldn’t get from a simple list and they are a bit cluttered to boot.

Twitter’s blocks are similar, though not quite as intuitive. There is a nice animation thattwitter1.jpg creates a stair-step effect and I get that the center line is my recent timeline and the paths branching away are the timelines of other users in my timeline, but I’m not sure this is actually a better way of discovering other users. The bricks themselves don’t say anything until I zoom in on them, so they don’t save me time or present more/better data than linking through user pages directly. I.e. I can “explore” just as easily on the main pages.

For me Digg has set the gold standard here. Its swarm, stack, bigspy and arc all show what is happening on the site in a way that shows off Digg’s core competence- aggregating and ranking news- while letting users easily scan the news items flowing through the site without having to do anything.

Guy Kawasaki blogged an interesting article about data visualization methods. It’s an interesting read and some techniques definitely seem to do the job better than others, or maybe some data is just much harder to present visually.

My personal favorite is a time-sequence graph of Last.fm listening habits, If it was actually a dynamic graph it would nose out Digg for “best in class”. It isn’t though; it is a “snapshot” of a particular moment in time for the developer.

photo courtesy http://megamu.com/lastfm/

Still it is gorgeous and presents the information in a way that would take many more words to explain, and be far less interesting, and that is the point. The web is still mostly about words because words work pretty darn well. If the picture isn’t worth a heck of a lot of them, it doesn’t really add enough value.

  • Good post, thanks for including Twitter Blocks and Digg Labs (I work at Stamen Design, we’re responsible for both).

    We’re still taking in the feedback from Friday’s Blocks launch, but we’re certainly aware that the experience could be clearer and that the piece could be more readable without clicking around a lot. Actually, you’re quite rare in being able to describe it correctly without our help – that should tell us something!

    It’s quite likely that the piece will be improved following feedback like yours. We used the same approach for Digg Stack and Digg Arc, both saw significant updates after first launch and we’re much happier with them now. We’re proud of Twitter Blocks, but never too proud to say there isn’t more to do.

    We’re also big fans of Lee Byron, if only he wasn’t interning with IBM (http://blog.many-eyes.com/2007/07/27/introducing-the-matrix-chart/) perhaps he could come and intern with us!

  • Nice article…

    We have one that reports on something similar

    We also noticed you are using the WP Mega Feedjit Widget from Widget Pi, and wanted to let you know that Version 0.5 has been released, which allows for easy customisation of the colours and so forth…

  • Nice work! The Digg animations are mesmerizing. The challenge with Twitter, IMO, is to pull out the dynamic nature of the site and also the relationships among users. I’m sure you’ve thought of that. 😉

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