In 2004 I discovered the Internet.
Back then, most of it – at least, most of what I saw – was text. Pages and pages of it. People read this stuff. Occasionally, you would find an image and you would pass it by.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t the early years I’m talking about, when the most hardcore took their entertainment in ASCII. By 2004 the Web was pretty well on its way to being the Internet of today. Facebook had yet to happen (and Sri Lanka was on terrible, terrible dialup), so most of our time was spent rummaging through geeky blogs and clicking through arcane forums. In fact, blogs and tech sites – with their sometimes heavy descriptions, talking about colors and shapes and sound in a low-bandwidth  world where images and audio were sometimes impossible to put on a page.

Yahoo was one of the most colorful pages back then, and just look at the images-to-text ratio
Yahoo was one of the most colorful pages back then, and just look at the images-to-text ratio

Naturally, things improved. 14kbp/s, which was an epic thing back when I first got Internet, became 60 kbps, then 128, then 512….slowly, but steadily, the blogs started vanishing. Forums fell off the grid. The large reams of text we used to read became truncated. On the tech sites, the articles kept getting shorter and shorter, much like skirts (which nobody’s go to complain about, ever).

Whereas a reviewer would once say “It comes in a beautiful package, made of yellow and black carbon fiber with a silver clasp” they would simply throw in a photo and say: Oh. Look. Box.

Why? Because for once, we COULD describe things without having to sit down and think hard and write hundreds of words and hope that somebody has the patience to read it all. A picture speaks a thousand words, as the saying goes. So why take the time to write a couple of thousand words – and still not be able to express something fully – when you could simply throw in a picture? Once the improvements in bandwidth set it, not only was it tempting, it became the logical choice.

It’s actually ironic that I’m WRITING about this.

Take this photo, for example (it's by a very talented photographer called Ushan Gunasekara). Describe it with words. Describe all of it. Go on. I dare you. See how long it takes.
Take this photo, for example (it’s by a very talented photographer called Ushan Gunasekara). Describe it with words. Describe all of it. Go on. I dare you. See how long it takes.

As a writer myself, I’ve run into this thousands of times – especially at events – describing things, running rings around myself trying to describe shape, color, lighting, movement when a single photo does the trick.

Seriously, why would you write – or for that matter, read – a whole page when one single glance at one single photo would describe all of that, and more?

And so people started cutting down on reading. Golden rules set in – such as 742.5 words per blog post on average, because people’s attention kinda wandered after that. Blogs started getting more traffic, because tons more people connect to the ‘net, but very few of that traffic is into 2000-word posts: the world turned.  

The simple fact is that images are way more popular than text, because they transmit way more information in a glance. I’ve seen this in countless even albums that see many hundreds of likes and thousands of impressions on social media while the actual in-depth article is boring to all but a few.  

We like in a world where images are the key to expression. It’s not that people are too busy to read – it’s just that in most cases you don’t need to. Be it selfies or photography or memes, images have changed how we absorb ideas off the ‘net.

Heck, look at 9gag.com. Look at the meme-revolution. Thousands of ideas are being exchanged every day, every hour, and through what? Images. You think those Bad Luck Brian posts would be so epic without that photo? It’s not just for writers that this matters – look at how people, on the whole, have changed. People used to have diaries: now they have Instagram accounts.

The good thing is, images haven’t entirely replaced the need for text. Diminished, yes, destroyed, no. Despite all the word limits and crap that we have to put up with, despite the space we grudgingly give over to that JPEG, there are things images cannot describe well – like ideas. Can you express this blog post in images? How effective would that be?

What pictures have done  – and this is something every person who uses the web right now has probably realized on some level – is to give us amalgamation, a sort of best-of-both-world scenario. Plain text won’t cut it anymore. Images can, all by their lonesome, but marry the two and you have critical success. Bad Luck Brian’s photo isn’t going to do diddly squat without the text.

Now we just need to keep an eye out for the videos, because those things can do both. And they already have. Is that a cue to stop writing and start YouTubing? It may very well be.