Thursday, September 6, 2007

twitter blocks

I caught this story yesterday on Matthew Hurst's data mining blog, along with more discussion at TechCrunch, and wanted to write something about it while it was still hot.

"Twitter Blocks" is a new visualization of data from the social networking (or whatever they're calling it) site, Twitter. As I understand it, Twitter allows users to post text-message sized nuggets of information about what they're up to at any particular moment. The idea is to post these short messages relatively frequently (from your phone, even) in order to build up a timeline of updates that describes your life. As with any good social networking site, you can explore what other Twitter users are posting, add them as friends, etc.. The "Twitter Blocks" tool, developed by Stamen Design (of visualization fame; more on these in a future post), is an attempt to visually display your local network of Twitter friends. Unfortunately, while I think that Blocks is aesthetically attractive, and I applaud Stamen for being prolific visualization producers, as a functional information visualization it is pretty weak.

Granted, I do not use Twitter and have only a vague idea of how it works, but even after studying Blocks for 20 minutes, I have absolutely no idea what metrics it is representing. Here is my short list of issues with it:

  • Lack of identifying labels (aside from the cryptic "public timeline ->"). The layout suggests a chart or graph or timeline, but there is no indication of what is being "measured" or what metrics its dimensionality maps to.
  • As is typical of Stamen's designs (see Digg visualizations), the "help" screen offers very little help. The single sentence description ("Blocks are recent statuses from users and the people they follow") at best gives no further insight in to the design. For someone not familiar with Twitter it's downright nonsensical.
  • Some "blocks" extend upwards or downwards off the screen; what does this mean? Again, what does the height signify at all, for that matter?
  • The three dimensional structure of the chart is difficult to discern because the viewpoint only rotates a few degrees from its default position, preventing you from getting a clearer view of parts of the "graph."
  • The "zoom" feature (when you click on a block) happens too quickly to understand what's happening.
  • In some situations (see screenshot above) the chart takes on Escher-esque features, with "blocks" that are further away being drawn on top of closer ones (although I assume this is a bug).

By the standards of cannonical information visualization, this is a sloppy design. But that begs the question: how does the question of form versus function apply to tools like Twitter Blocks? Is Twitter Blocks intentionally not useful? I thought the discussion at TechCrunch was interesting because I rarely see users weighing in on this question. Particularly, Tom Carden, a designer at Stamen (and someone whose work I have enjoyed in the Processing community) posted an interesting comment:

"bankblast - plenty of things are cool and useless if you stop to think about it (TV? movies? games?). So I don’t have a problem with that. But we’ve been using Blocks in the office for a couple of weeks now and I keep finding out new things that I couldn’t have seen on my Twitter homepage. Worksforme!"

No offense to Tom, but it sounds like he's playing both sides! He admits to its potential uselessness but simultaneously suggests that that it is quite functional. Based on Stamen's previous work, I do think they are trying to produce useful information tools and not just pretty designs, but justifications like this seem like an easy way out of more careful consideration of their design. And frankly, the "works for me" defense seems completely antithetical to the principles of information visualization!

Anyways, the question of form versus function in information visualization is one that I am really interested in. I hope to write more about this in the future.


Tom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom said...

Tiny comment boxes in blogger can lead to off-the-cuff comments, so I've put a response on my blog.

I will use this space to say thanks for posting about Blocks and taking the time to attempt to figure it out. I'm sorry it didn't quite do it for you.