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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

It's a Web Of Pictures

People don't read, on the world wide web.

Well, that's not quite right. Still. Find yourself a context in which people can write things, and other people can reply to those things. Write some sort of thoughtful remark, say 200 words or so. Make sure it's on-topic, that is makes a single clear point, and that it backs that point up with a straightforward argument. Now watch for replies. You might have to do this a few times to actually draw a reply.

Almost invariably you will find that even a direct reply -- someone hit a "reply" button, and perhaps quoted some or all of your text -- will make almost no sense. It won't be a reply at all. You might ask yourself if the replier is insane, since your point was quite clear, and yet the reply seems to be about something else entirely.

People don't read, on the web. They're here to kill time, they're here on mobile devices that make reading text quite a chore. One could probably perform a study to measure the average amount of time people will devote to trying to read and grasp a comment, a forum remark, or any other "flow of conversation" snippet of content (as opposed to, say, a longer form news article). I bet the answer would come out to a small number of seconds.

People don't read. Instead, they skim. They pick out keywords and phrases, they try to guess what your position is based on that. They may slot you into a social group "my side" or "their side" if there's some sort of argument going on. Based on this sort of snap judgement, they will they dash off a reply based not on what you said, but what they imagine someone like you might say.

Ok, so what? Andrew's a damn crybaby, and nobody bothers to read what he wrote.

The important point here is that people allocate a very small number of seconds to some content you post. So, you're best off posting a picture.

If you write: went to a party last night, drank too much, it was awesome. Hung out with Billy and Susie, and laughed and laughed. Now I am hungover. people might read it. They might not. It's an impossibly tiny fragment of impossibly tiny text on their iPhone.

If you post a picture of you and Susie and Billy laughing very hard and visibly drunk, you communicate exactly the same thing, and people reading your social media thing will grasp the idea reliably and instantaneously. There is zero effort involved, no reading, no puzzling out of tiny letters. Instead of engaging a linear/reading part of the brain, what's engaged is the picture-recognizing parts of the brain, which work all-at-once.

Memes are somewhere in the middle. There's a picture, but there's words. What's nice about memes is that the structure of the picture with words on it enforces both a large font (easily read on mobile devices) and a very short lump of text (quickly read). It's not quite as instantaneous as a picture alone, but it is grasped by the reader very very fast indeed. It is a fine way to make some point in, nearly, an instant.

It's a world wide web of pictures. It's what people want, it's what they consume.

Hooray, photography for the win! (as civilization crumbles!)

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