The Ups and Downs of Gravity from Disqus

Jul 14, 2013

The popular commenting platform Disqus has released Gravity, a bubbly visualization of trending conversations happening in real time across 500 of its communities.

Built with D3, the visualization groups the top 60 trending stories into topics and bubbles new ones up as they experience a spike in commenting volume (rather than a spike views or clicks).

In his process post for Gravity, Vince Lane outlines the design goals:

We wanted to highlight the unique range of communities and content on Disqus.
We wanted visitors to begin to think about the platform as something more than an isolated commenting experience (a notion our D12 demo only reinforces).
We also wanted to hint at potential future Disqus products.

And in another post Sam Parker mentions:

"We plan to make [Gravity] a centerpiece of, so visitors can easily find Disqus sites and click back out to join discussions, which in turn shares traffic with publishers."

With such an prominent future location and a lofty goals, this visualization deserves some scrutiny.

To me, Gravity reads as a fancy homepage feature meant to wow visitors. In its current state it doesn't offer much 'discovery' utility. The communities shown are limited and the interactions are a bit inefficient to comb through the range of discussions. The 'real-time' factor does add some interest but I'd be curious to learn what the click through rates are like from this page.

What's more, I can't find any correlation between bubble size and the number of comments on a story. If this is really meant to be a visualization and not an unordered list dressed up in javascript then Disqus needs to clearly tie commenting data to these visual variables.

Gravity really falls flat by emphasizing the stories far above the discussions. Stories are currently the main element of the visualization while single comments appear in a pull-quote style entirely out of context. I can imagine an alternate version, something more like the Wall Street Journal's Political Moneyball, where some small circles are actually new comments bubbling up for you to skim through. I feel this format would also lend itself better to discovery with more zooming, more detail, and more to explore.

Gravity is a valuable first attempt but I feel there are some kinks to work out and depth to be added before this can become a serious homepage feature or useful discovery tool for the Disqus platform.

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