Freaky Dataviz: NYTimes’s “Ebb and Flow”

I confess an irrational love for dataviz. A properly done data visualization can be brilliant and beautiful–a graphic representation that does more than words, photos, videos or flat graphics to explain some aspect of “reality.”

An excellent web dataviz makes you say “Oh, I get it” after even a brief glance.

A perfect one also is so beautiful you want to spend time just clicking and admiring–and, as you do, your understanding deepens.

One of my favorite examples: Digg Labs’ “Stack” real-time visualizer of users’ diggs. Ignore the fact that Digg content and users have an unsavory quality. The point is the Tetris-like dataviz shows what content is being recommend, and how frequently, in real time. If you want to dig deep you can click through to the articles that are stacking up.

So it’s with a mixed sense of awe and bafflement I regard The New York Times’ “The Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Receipts 1986-2007.”


It intends to show how hundreds of movies performed at the box office over 20 years. It’s gorgeous and unsettling, a thing to behold and ponder. It suggests the botanical metaphor for the male never seen in Georgia O’Keeffe paintings. Or a flayed trachea. Or maybe some  crustacean group housing complex you come across while snorkeling and flipper away from real fast.

She shame is, it’s hard to figure out.

Some movies that made less money are shown as peaks higher than those who made more. See “I am Legend” and “National Treasure.” This has to do with the difference between weekly and total box office revenue, but I had to work really hard to figure that one out.

There appears to be no logic to whether a movie is rendered above or below center, though the mind expects some connection.  It’s not quality of movie per the Times review; I checked.

To be fair, spend enough time with the Ebb and Flow and you come to understand, with visuals not words, a few worthy observations about box office behavior:

  • Blockbusters tend to hit hard and fade into a skinny long tail
  • Some movies that do poorly in total box office (Little Miss Sunshine) have more staying power than high-grossers (Evan Almighty, to use a Steve Carrell comparison, which peaked and petered).
  • Okay, it’s no surprise, but the movies that do the best box office around the time of their release are summer and holiday fare.

Anyway: Ebb and Flow is a beautiful and ambitious dataviz. It does remind me of a  phenomenon from my days in words-on-paper journalism, however, which makes it a good cautionary tale for those who undertake dataviz projects.
Back in the day, an editor and reporter would get all excited about a story, sell it around the newsroom, do lots of reporting, work all the sources, gather some slam-bang quotes and cool facts, craft a great narrative and then realize. . .well, there isn’t much story there.

It never stopped the words-and-paper journalists from publishing. It probably shouldn’t stop the datavisualists either.

Explore posts in the same categories: dataviz, NY Times, print-to-digital, Uncategorized

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