Elgan: The rise of the social picture gadget

Here's how the primacy of pictures on social networks is transforming consumer electronics.

The new language of social media isn't made up of words; it's made up of pictures.

Everywhere you look on the social networks, posts with pictures get most of the attention and engagement.

Let's examine why images suddenly trump words on social sites and how this uber-trend will change your gadgets.

Why pictures rule

Blogging started out as public journaling. It was all about words.

One of the oldest blogs still in existence (and still one of the best) is Dave Winer's Scripting News blog. (If you visit the site, you can see that it's not exactly "visual.")

About 12 years ago, the number of good blogs on every topic started growing fast. Soon there was too much good stuff to keep up with. It was overwhelming to find and follow all of the interesting people.

About five years ago, Twitter took off. A lot of people couldn't understand why Twitter became so popular so fast, but in hindsight the explanation is clear: Twitter enabled us to follow a large number of people without mental overload. The tweets go by. You take 'em or leave 'em.

If you have the time and mental bandwidth to follow, say, 20 good blogs, you might instead follow 50 with RSS or 1,000 via Twitter.

If you understand each new evolutionary step in social media -- blogs to RSS to Twitter -- as opportunities to increase the number of posts we can handle, then you'll also understand why pictures are the necessary next step in that evolution.

It's a response to social networking fatigue syndrome. We evolved from reading a small number of blogs and posts to reading a very large number of short posts (Twitter) to now just browsing content by getting "impressions" from pictures.

Two things are changing here. First, the habits of the average reader are changing to favor skimming and browsing -- from quality to quantity content consumption. Second, the number of participants is growing.

Yes, there are still the same number of brainy word nerds pouring over every thoughtful screed Dave Winer writes. But now, everyone's participating in social media, if only as a skimming lurker.

Besides, it's human nature to crave the mental transportation into another world, another place or another person's life. We need to see and feel how others live. Words can do that, but it's much easier and faster for the average person to do that with a quick camera-phone picture.

Globalization favors pictures

Social media is an increasingly "globalized world," to parrot an idiotic phrase.

If you look at the international distribution of Google+ users, for example, you'll see that fewer than 29% of them are Americans. The percentages of users in India and Brazil combined are roughly equal to that. Only four of the top 30 countries represented on Google+ are English-speaking countries.

That's why a nuanced, wordy post in any language, even English, is unlikely to gain the engagement of thousands necessary to spark a viral hit. A stunning picture of a sunset, however, is potentially meaningful to everyone, regardless of language.

If you look at the Google+ talent show called the "What's Hot" list, you'll see a lot of sunsets, and other visually arresting, internationally relatable images. What you won't see are word-only posts.

The majority of Google+ posts overall don't have full-size pictures, but probably more than 90% of the items on the "What's Hot" list do have full-size pictures.

And it's not just any picture that goes viral on Google+.

A successful social image tells you what you're supposed to feel unambiguously. Joy, humor, pathos, awe, disgust -- there is no room for subtlety, nuance, obscure cultural references or intellectual exploration, because that doesn't translate.

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