Rise of the Visual Web

Pictures came first. Long before humans ever thought to develop any kind of written language like the ones we use today, they communicated with each other by drawing and painting images from their lives. In fact, the earliest written languages almost certainly evolved directly from pictures which became standardized to represent certain concepts. Over time, these standardized images adapted for ease of use into traditional letters; now representing sounds rather than concepts. In some cultures, such as modern Chinese, picture “writing” still permeates the dominant “alphabet”.

However, modernized letters aren’t necessarily better just because they came later. To be sure, it would be very difficult to efficiently type a Monet, just as it would be daunting to paint a picture detailing every obscure rule of parliamentary procedure. Alphabetized lettering took over not because of form, but because of function. In an industrializing world, straight forward and unambiguous communication was necessary to propel the business processes; art, while still important in many ways to a great many people, became a luxury; a pastime given over to those few with sufficient talent to impress.

Image Revolution

This may be about to change. With the rise of Web 2.0 (how I hate that cliché, if only it wasn’t so apt so often) and the almost universal proclivity for social media interaction, human culture is poised on the brink of a communication revolution. Google (who else…) has suspected this change was in the works for a long time, and has been working hard to get ahead of the curve; as have any number of other leading web innovators. This change isn’t really about search, or web design, or even technology at all; it’s about humans and how we consume information.

Rhetoric about human psychology and grand pronouncements regarding coming revolutions aside, the web really is undergoing a fundamental change in the way information is presented online. Pictures are taking over. Leading the charge are the many social media channels. In the early days of social media, interaction was strictly through words. Remember AOL Instant Messenger? That was social media (light?). Even today, chat is still a core feature of social media interaction; but this dominance is slowly giving way to a world of pictures. There is a reason the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” still rings true; humans really are visual creatures, and we’re finally getting back to our roots.

The Catch

The only problem is, pictures have never played nice with our technology. They didn’t work well for communicating complex scientific and industrial concepts 1000 years ago and they still don’t. To make matters worse, even pictures intended purely for entertainment value don’t play nice with computers. Early PCs couldn’t even display pictures. Engineers quickly corrected the problem, but pictures have always been challenging. They take up enormous amounts of space, require large amounts of processor time to render, cost a lot of money to produce, and are never good enough to end users. Worse yet again, images have traditionally been nearly impossible for computers to actually “comprehend”. Because of this, images can’t be searched effectively using current technology; they can’t be monitored, or even catalogued. Even the almighty Google can’t properly search through a stack of photographs the way a human can; not quite anyway. All sorts of work-arounds have been devised, but every one of them requires human effort. Images can be tagged, contextual clues can be utilized, and humans can directly label and organize images at will; but none of this can be routinely automated. That is until now.

Google to the Rescue

Last year, Google hired a leading Artificial Intelligence researcher by the name of Ray Kurzweil to head up Google’s rapidly advancing deep learning department. Deep learning is Google’s attempt at true AI. It’s a system that, in short, attempts to mimic the human brain in such a way so as to allow computer software to “understand” images and language the way humans themselves do. Even before Kurzwile came on board, Google was getting pretty close; with his help, they’re just about there. Recently Google ran a pilot AI simulation that asked the software to sift through Youtube videos. The software elected to pick out cats, and then went to work correctly identifying videos containing cats; not by their titles or tags, but by the images.

Show Me the Money!

Others aren’t waiting for Google to get it right; they’re forging ahead despite the various limitations inherent in the visual web. Images are replacing text as the dominate form of communication among social media users. Some of the fastest growing networks don’t even have chat. Think Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, and SnapChat. But it’s not just social media that’s adapting, it’s also ecommerce. Put simply, images sell. There is almost no way to compete with a good picture in terms of reaching out to potential buyers. Sayings don’t often “go viral” but pictures do it all the time. There is a reason. Words, no matter how powerful, efficient, or easy to use, just do not have the impact of images. It really is true that a picture is worth 1000 words, except in the world of online commerce, no one (absolutely no one) is going to read a 1000 word product description.


Kjeld Lindsted Kjeld Lindsted
Content Architecture, Copywriting, and Editing
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