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Less than 10 minutes after the news of Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation hit the wires last week, the information was visible to hundreds of thousands of people via the homepage of Digg.com, a social news aggregation site that relies on readers to submit and promote interesting news stories.

According to Digg founder Kevin Rose, the Rumsfeld news was submitted to Digg three minutes after the Associated Press released it; four minutes later, the story had acquired enough “diggs” to jump to the front page of the site. The speed at which the Rumsfeld news–a quick read at only two sentences–was promoted to the front page of Digg “broke a record,” said Rose last week at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco.

But the incident is more than a milestone for the social news site: it underscores the power that legions of citizen editors have to determine the importance and timeliness of news. By comparison, Rose said, Google News, a site that uses algorithms to find and establish the importance of news (based on the reputation of news sources), took about 25 minutes to pick up the story.

How did so many people find the Rumsfeld news amid the thousands of other headlines submitted to Digg that day? According to Rose, 33 percent of the diggs that helped propel the story to the front page came from the data visualization tools called Stack and Swarm, which graphically represent stories and their popularity. The effect was particularly striking in Swarm, an application in which stories appear as small floating circles that grow in size as users digg the story. At one point, said Rose, the circle that represented the Rumsfeld news swelled so large that it encompassed most of the screen.

Data visualization tools such as Swarm are crucial to sifting through the hordes of detritus on Digg. Because of these tools, Digg was able to harness the collective intelligence of its users and serve up speedy results that, in this case, bested Google’s specialized algorithm. The incident illustrates that when social sites can meaningfully tap into the brainpower and enthusiasm of their communities, they are not just a novelty or a Web 2.0 fad. They may well be essential.

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