Maybe “Avenue Q” was wrong. Maybe the Internet isn’t for porn after all, as the famous song claims. Maybe that’s just a subset. Maybe the Internet is for pictures.
Facebook certainly seems to think so.
We are all accustomed to the ritual now. Periodically, Facebook emerges from the woodwork with another announcement about Something Radical It Has Decided Will Shake Up Your Social Networking Life. This time, they’re redoing the news feed, segregating Friend content from News content and making the feed larger, so you can watch videos in the frame, giving enhanced primacy to pictures, and making outside apps display their wares more fetchingly.
The quote that’s gotten the most buzz from the event is Zuckerberg’s insistence that the new feed will be the best “personalized newspaper” out there. Yes — it’ll be a string of pictures with limited text! Almost like USA Today!
Sometimes Facebook just does something bizarre — “Let’s see if our users would like to have no privacy whatsoever, as a default? No. Okay.” — or performs a tiny tweak to something that requires us to come up with some sort of Cover Image. But this time it’s actually tracking alarmingly well onto the direction the whole Internet has gone.
In the past ten years, text has been slowly forced out of its natural homeland on the Internet as the pictures, memory-hogging and noisy and attention-getting, came blaring in. “Please,” text pleaded, “we have been peaceably dwelling here for years now, since ARPANET, using all parts of the whale, living in harmony and placing very limited demands on bandwidth.”
“Nope,” pictures said. “We have kittens.” (“And,” they whispered, “pornography.”) Then the video came. And then the GIFs came back.
Look at the Internet as it was ten years ago — great waterfalls of text, tiny pixelated images, virgin hyperlinks stretching as far as the eye could see. The occasional trace of a dancing hamster, although that was more of a 1999-2000 phenomenon. Look at it now. Where once teens poured out their Deep Existential Yearnings into LiveJournals, now they corral the same thoughts into a series of GIFs on Tumblr.
As our Internet access has gotten faster (gone are the days of dial-up, when you could spend hours waiting for a two-minute-long trailer to load), pictures became not merely delightful, but standard. Everything has to include a picture. This blog post includes a picture.
The assault on text is moving rapidly. Twitter is one of the few text-based bastions, but you only get 140 characters. That is about as much as we can take.
Pictures have always been preferable. You don’t hear people saying that a line of text is worth a thousand pictures.
Maybe it all gets down to the limits of language. Can you ever, really convey in words what something looks like? Maybe we only used our words before because pictures were too costly to manufacture and send. Now, if a vague acquaintance from elementary school decides to get engaged, we don’t want to see a note that says, “I have just gotten a nice-looking but not too showy ring from a brown-haired guy of slightly above average height whom you have never met before in your life.” Pics! Pics or it didn’t happen! Heck, even emotions don’t always come through in the text. If you want to convey how you feel upon glancing into your midterm, you could write three hundred words and barely skim the surface, or you could simply embed one of these GIFS.
“This expresses it better than any words can,” you hear people say, often.
“I have no words for this,” they say. “Here is a GIF of a chicken on a record player.”
We bump up against the limits of words enough as it is in daily life. The English language simply doesn’t have words for everything we require from it. And if we send e-mails without any stretching vowels, people think we’re being strange and hostile. Given how much of our communicating we do online, the loss of the rich non-verbal cues and nuance of an actual conversation has led us to try such bizarre stratagems as emoticons (still not entirely sure what ‘:3’ is suppose to convey) and vowel stretching. Maybe we’ve pushed the language to its breaking point. Maybe, where we’re going, we don’t need words.
This rabbit-hole gets depressing very quickly.
As someone who spends my time pushing words around on a screen and gets nervous and irritable from too many gifs pointing and winking at me, I worry that I will soon be of limited use in this new world. But you can’t argue with the graph. People like pictures.
Everything is becoming tumblr or Pinterest. Even Facebook.
There are two things I know about Facebook layout changes after being on the receiving end of them for so many years: Whether everyone squalls about them or praises them, it does not matter. You can’t go back.