Is a Picture Still Worth a Thousand Words?

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We live in an increasingly visual society, in which our lives are now catalogued as a flood of images – everything from where we traveled to what we had for dinner. Now that smart phones are cameras as much as they are phones, it’s easier than ever to snap a photo of a perfectly ordinary event, add a few filter effects, and impress your social media friends with your photographic prowess. It’s almost too easy. Whether it’s Instagram, Facebook or Flickr – we’re posting photos online at an exponential rate — more than 300 million photos each day. There are now easily more than 100 billion photos online. As a result, one of the great adages of the 20th century – “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” – is eroding right in front of our very eyes.

That adage – popularly attributed to the great Chinese sage Confucius – is commonly invoked as some kind of ancient Truth (capital T). However, it’s actually a clever marketing slogan that first started to appear at the turn of the 20th century. In the early 1920’s, when the first streetcars began to accept advertising, marketers stumbled upon the concept that a photo was a much better alternative than a lot of words for getting people to buy things. To make sure that people bought plenty of ads with photos in them, one particularly enterprising marketer decided to make up the whole mythology around a Chinese proverb. And, so it went, until “a picture is worth a thousand words” became practically a truism, whereby we now talk about photos as a convenient way to describe complexity.

Clearly, a lot of folks who made money in the days of analog cameras want to keep it that way. They –just like the marketers of 1920’s America – will tell you that your photos are worth a thousand words and that you should print them out for posterity. Polaroid, for example, announced a bold new plan to roll out Fotobars around the nation, where people can print out their digital prints at Genius Bar-like locations. The first Fotobar is due to roll out in Florida in February later this month, and from there, the plan is to have 10 of them in place by the end of 2013. Other analog photo companies – like Kodak – also seem to like the idea of preserving photos on paper and selling us a lot of toner ink for our color printers. As a result, they, too, remind us that a photo is really worth a thousand words.

Yet, the technological trend seems to be going the other way, in which photos are becoming commoditized at an alarming rate. Think about the way people use cameras and smart phones in a digital world. Do people actually print out photos anymore? It’s easier to just post a whole bunch of pics on Facebook, add a few funny captions, tag a few people, and just be done with it, content that the photos are somewhere safe in the “cloud.” Consider that one of the fastest growing digital photo apps – SnapChat – is based on the proposition that photos have a limited shelf life. The basic idea ofSnapChat is this – you see an interesting photo opportunity, snap a picture and send it to a friend as a message. Once viewed, it disappears forever. The photos are not saved anywhere, even on SnapChat’s servers. A photo, in short, is now meant to be ephemeral, viewable once before disappearing forever.

Which is not to say that there’s not a tremendous amount of photographic talent out there, doing amazing things with their iPhones and Android phones. And, obviously, all those filters clearly make things pop. Nearly any event – like the recent Superstorm Sandy – seems all the more epic once it’s been immortalized with Instagram photos rather than words. Certainly, that speaks to the increasingly visual nature of our society, as images replace words as a means of communication.

But it’s hard to think that all 100 billion photos on Facebook are worth a thousand words. Maybe a thousand likes, but not a thousand words. Any economist will tell you, that when a market has been saturated to the degree that the digital photography market has been, the price of anything gets pushed down. Maybe that’s why all those filters are so popular – they are an attempt to increase the valuation of a commoditized photo. Today’s “selfie” – the preferred mode of self-expression when you’re out and about on your own – has nothing on the self-portraits of yesteryear that we yearn to re-create. Photos are now cheap and disposable, even when you mess around with the latest photo filters that give photos an aged, vintage (and expensively distressed) look.

So if a photo isn’t worth a thousand words, then what is in today’s digital economy? If you buy into the concept that The Attention Economy Is Now the Location Economy, then the logical heir apparent to the photo-worth-a-thousand-words is the map-worth-ten-thousand-words. The Google Map (and, to a lesser degree, the Apple Map) has been elevated to a real-time interactive element embedded with meta-data worthy of ten thousand words. Maps are able to illustrate complexity. Maps have the ability to polarize any conversation immediately. Maps have the ability to turn complete strangers into friends. Nearly 100 years after the time-worn adage about pictures being worth a thousand words got started, maps will become the way we will make sense of the world in the near future.

Image credit: Hemera

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