yARN: 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.

The primacy of pictures explains a lot

The rise of the visual Web explains a lot of Silicon Valley mysteries.

For example, why, according to content-sharing company Shareaholic, has Pinterest surpassed Yahoo to become the fourth-largest driver of traffic on the Internet?

Why was Facebook willing to pay such an absurdly high price for mobile photo-sharing service Instagram?

Why did Facebook create a separate mobile app just for pictures?

Why did Google build image-editing tools into Google+?

Why is Apple interested in buying The Fancy, a site that's similar to Pinterest but with an e-commerce component?

These events make no sense unless you recognize that success in social networking depends entirely on facilitating communication via pictures.

The rise of the social picture gadget

Smartphones do a lot of jobs for us, from communication to calendaring to navigation to entertainment. But suddenly, it's as if taking and viewing social pictures is the only thing that matters.

The gadget makers that facilitate this behavior will find the most customers.

A lot of new phones, such as Nokia's Lumia 920, are designed for great picture-taking and viewing. The Lumia 920 has two features that every phone will need from now on: A killer camera, and a killer screen for viewing high-resolution pictures even in sunlight.

Tellingly, the most buzzworthy aspect of its launch was that Nokia made a big apology for faking the quality of its camera in an advertisement. The phone's camera is very good, but Nokia faked the commercial because it recognizes how important camera quality is to the sales pitch.

Another recent development is the announcement of Nikon's new Coolpix S800c camera. The 16-megapixel camera actually runs a smartphone operating system -- Google's Android. You can download and use Android apps on it, and you can upload your pictures via Wi-Fi directly from the camera. They can even be geotagged with the camera's built-in GPS, or optimized with either built-in or downloaded photo editing apps.

One of my friends on Google+ expressed the consumer demand for social picture gadgets perfectly when he accompanied a post about the Coolpix S800c with the following comment: "This is what I want the iPhone 5 to be."

The rise of the visual Web is transforming expectations, desires and behaviors to the point where we no longer care if the gadget we carry is a "phone" or a "camera."

The emphasis for the gadgets we carry is suddenly on prosumer-quality photography, Internet connectivity and instant social networking. Even the ability to make calls is now secondary.

We just want a pocket-size social picture gadget that enables us to take, upload, share, discover and view stunning pictures from anywhere.

Whoever gives us the best one wins.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free email newsletter, Mike's List. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about social media in Computerworld's Social Media Topic Center.

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