Taking Apart The Guardian’s Is-There-A-Pope-Yet Site

A new site by The Guardian tells you whether or not there’s a new Pope yet. Binary “signal sites” like this one can be as useful as they are blunt. Here’s how to make one.

Taking Apart The Guardian’s Is-There-A-Pope-Yet Site

If you couldn’t be in St. Peter’s Square to watch the election of Pope Francis, perhaps the next best thing was to follow the progress at


Building a binary “signal site” like the one The Guardian Interactive Team put together this week can be a good way to connect a web and mobile audience with events in the real world. Because of the binary nature of the election–the smoke is either black when no new Pope has been elected, or white on success–web viewers can tell at a glance if there is a decision.

The Guardian’s site goes one step further, featuring a real-time feed of the Sistine Chapel’s chimney, updated every two minutes. It’s not a video feed, though; by inspecting the source we can see it’s actually random left and bottom positioning of a single overlapping smoke image that creates the illusion of his actual eminence (ha!) coming from the Vatican chimney.

Similar binary sites like Is the L Train Fucked?, have built a sustained following just by delivering a single piece of information: in this case whether or not the “L” train that runs between Manhattan and Brooklyn is experiencing, ahem, service delays.

Hacking the Election

The Guardian kept the shell of the site simple, presumably in order to push out changes as quickly as possible when a new Pope is elected. The page is designed in such a way that a single change in the CSS class attached to the body element corresponds to the success of the conclave’s last vote.

Using your web developer tools you can see a CSS class, “pope-no,” is assigned to the body html element. When the “pope-no” class is set, the browser choses an image for black smoke. You can hack the class to “pope-yes” and see what will happen when the Cardinals elect a new Pope. Now take all that simulated enthusiasm for the simulated new Pope represented by this simulated smoke, and go build one yourself. What do you say?

[Image: Flickr user Catholic Church England and Wales]

About the author

Matt Mankins is the former CTO at Fast Company and founder at