Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Pinterest and the age of image overload

We often talk as the internet as a source of information overload. There is just too many emails, articles, blog posts, news reviews etc. Too much to consume. This is usually thought of in terms of copy and the burden its consumption puts on our limited time and cognitive capabilities. Copy requires scanning to understand what it is about, then checking to see if it is of interest, and then either moving on or engaging to one level or another and digesting the text.

But we are also bombarded with images. A lot has been said about the number of marketing messages we are exposed to, but there is also the images we want to see. The success of sites such as Pinterest must in part lie in the fact that their visual nature implies that they are likely to be easier to browse and consume and require less effort on the part of the user. But even within a primarily visual domain the same, scan, understand, evaluate and then reject or consume process has to be applied. It is just done without a conscious reliance on language processing. Or at least a minimum.

I spent a lot of my time, too much, sitting at my computer. I have recently become more and more aware of the sheer quantity of images I am consuming. I follow design blogs, photography sites, Pinterest, the news and Facebook. The visual book marking sites condense the filtering work of millions of users into a compact, almost pre digested form. Which I then further filter into collections of items which I find inspiring, stimulating or memorable. They act as a augmented memory when I can store these scraps for later. The images just continue to pile up. And one gains a vicarious sense of creative action through the act of collecting, whilst never actually creating anything at all.


I wanted to find out how many images I am being exposed to and how this compares with traditional print media. My approach was basic but informative. I screen recorded myself browsing various sites and then played back the videos and counted the number of images. My screen area was 1280 by 700 pixels. I chose to record 4 minute time segments from which I could get an average. How you define an image is difficult. For my test I did not count icons, but did include advertisements and photographic avitar images.

When scrolling down a page any new images would be added to the total, but if I scrolled up again I did not add any image which reappeared. However when I left a page and returned I counted all images even if I had seen them previously. I did this because of the change of context and the potential for images to have alter either because they were replaced or their status or appearance may have changed, ie greyed out etc. Even if it was only a momentary action I still had to visually assess the images.

The sites I chose were:
BBC news site - scanning the headlines and reading three articles and 35 seconds of video
Amazon - searching for a product, bluetooth speakers
Facebook - reviewing status posts and following 3 links
Pinterest - scanning my home page for all feeds and investigating 3 items one back to the source article.

I also spent 4 minutes browsing and reading the Guardian paper, and the same time looing at the Ikea 2014 catalogue.


Okay this is a non scientific exercise, but even though the results are quite striking. Digital browsing throws up far more images than the same time on traditional media. While I knew a broadsheet like the Guardian was likely to have the lowest number of images, Ikea surprised me. In 4 minutes I went through 73 pages on the Ikea catalogue, but this only delivered 93 images. I expected Amazon to have a high number of images and to be close to the social media sites. Once you move from the search results pages a lot of the page space is taken up with reviews and copy descriptions. If you compare this to Pinterest, its thumbnail mosaic approach covers the whole screen area most of the time. (Infographics - which I counted as a single image but could be seen as many - can reduce the image density.)

Facebook and Pinterest display their content in a chronological sequence using "never ending" pages. This means you can just keep consuming. The average visit time to Pinterest is 14.2 minutes meaning they would see 4192 images. And on a monthly basis they spend 98 minutes seeing 28,934 images.

So we are undoubtedlyexposed to a large number of images, far more than in the past. It is fair to feel image overload, but is there a fundamental difference in the self induced overload of sites like PInterest?

In 2005 a study found we were exposed to 3500 marketing messages per day. This did not take into account any online activity. While image processing is what we do all the time when we look around the world. When we normally look at a scene we do not see it as individual chunks, or attempt to categorise and potentially store some of them. If you think back to what you did in the last 24 hours, how many images do you recall? Photography freezes the image and in doing so also makes decisions about what is included and excluded. Further more, Pinterest and others present us with images that we are likely to find interesting and want to see. These are not unwelcome intrusions, this is an activity we elect to do. Brands may use Pinterest but their presence is only accepted if the use wants them to be there. 

The continuing growth of Pinterest and the diversification of the demographics of its users seems to point to, not only a capacity to deal with this wave of images, but an active desire to become immersed in it.

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