By Kimberly Suchy
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and that’s why image-based social networking platforms work. People have an inherent tendency to think and digest information visually—our dreams and memories, after all, appear in colorful snapshots rather than words. Even when describing something in writing, we are told to “show, not tell.” While long withstanding companies such as Facebook and Twitter have built their empires from more verbally communicative platforms, newer enterprises that cater to humans’ natural predilection to images are finding rapid success.
Our Phones Have Cameras So Let’s Use Them
In fact, Pinterest, the social-photo pinboard, has seen a 2,702.2 percent increase in total unique visitors since May 2011, according to a February infographic on Mashable.com. People are drawn to Pinterest’s user-friendly interface based on a grid of organized images, and enjoy sharing inspiration through different boards that interest them. The article also revealed that “pinners” spend an average of 15.8 minutes on the site while people will spend only 12.1 minutes scrolling through Facebook.
Even Instagram, the zero-revenue start-up that Facebook recently purchased for $1 billion, has acquired a similar cult-like following. The mobile app boasts 50 million users with a common passion for snapping photos and sharing them with friends. Instagram’s various filters beautify otherwise average or dull images and make everyday experiences more special.
The masses let their love for pinning and filtering be known at the 16th Annual Webby Awards on May 21, which is considered by many to be the Internet’s Academy Awards. Pinterest won a Webby for “Best Social Media App,” as well as a People’s Voice award for “Best Visual Design,” while Instagram took home the honor of “Webby Breakout of the Year.”
Posting a Photo is Easier than Keeping your Thoughts to 140 Characters
Because the world is swarming with vast amounts of digital information, and while composing a tweet or writing a blog post are appropriate methods for sharing news-related headlines, photos and videos allow us to process more of this digital information at once. It is impossible for our brains to digest all the data it receives in any given day, but visually driven social networks trump language-based platforms because they have the power of speed. Images are easier to identify and recall, creating more meaningful messages in a person’s mind. While words must be strung together in a strategic order to create meaning, photographs are whole and compact, imparting more detailed concepts in a single click.
Posting a beautiful photo of Thailand to Instagram or pinning the same image to your “Wanderlust” board on Pinterest is inarguably quicker, easier and more effective than typing a tweet or status that encompasses the reasons why you find Thailand so breathtaking. Pinterest and Instagram both have feeds where users can instantly share images to all their followers, as well as quickly scroll through a feed of other people’s photos. Images have the power to distribute a panoramic view of information without sacrificing the viewers’ understanding.
Everyone Speaks the Language of Photos
Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of visual-social media, though, is its complete universality. Images are international, while the use of words limits users to their own language sphere. Social networks are meant to connect people, and visually based programs have made our networks much larger by linking us with people from around the world. Both Pinterest and Instagram feature an asymmetric model, similar to the idea behind Twitter. This means that users can choose to follow some people and not others, while the friend model implies that you want to see everything from everyone.
“Instagram was really the first to tackle asymmetric following for photos,” explained Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom in a video interview on the GigaOM website. “I think what made it catch on early on was the fact that you could go on, have no friends on the service, and still discover people to follow even if they didn’t speak English.” Similarly, Pinterest’s following is based on preferred image boards, and the only significant words appear in the labels of each board.
Increasing in Popularity: Photo-sharing Sites are Easy to Use
So, what is it about Pinterest, Instagram, and other similar social mediums like Tumblr, that have rocketed the companies to such rapid success? For one, they are all fluent in the visual language of digital media and have broken their programs down in a way that users will understand. Secondly, their image-based interests generate specific, attainable goals for their brands, preventing the companies from tackling social communication as a whole.
One important strategy throughout the design of Pinterest and Instagram was to focus on a few simple things and to do them well. With so many new technologies available and ideas for improvement, it is easy for companies to lose sight of their objectives and get carried away by adding unnecessary features. Systrom explained the importance of maintaining a focused design strategy, “If you’re going to do something, don’t be confused [by] it and be all over the place,” he said. “Be very convinced that what you’re doing is at least focused.”
Instagram was Born Out of the Need for Visual-Social Media
Part of being a successful entrepreneur is to understand how you’re going to be different from competitors, and responding to problems within competing products in order to create an altogether better result. In the building of Instagram, Systrom and his team identified key ways their product would be significantly different from all those before.
“We don’t try to do too many things,” Systrom continued. “We do a few things and do them well. We built Instagram for ourselves initially. We focused on problems we felt existed within existing products,” he said. “We weren’t a start-up that had a solution in search of a problem. We had problems in search of solutions, and I think that focus really helped us nail down those key things that helped us develop an interesting product.”
People wanted a quicker, simpler medium for posting their images, so Systrom created the Instagram app in response to user demand. Instagram quickly transforms the look and feel of photos with simple filters and makes it easy to share the beautified images on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter. With a strategy so basic and straightforward, it will be easier for the company to make changes to improve user experience in the future, such as adding or subtracting different photo filters.
Finding Inspiration is Easy with Pinterest
Featuring a simple, grid-like interface on both website and app, Pinterest was similar in embracing the “less is more” ethos. In fact, if you look at the network’s skeleton, it is nothing more than a basic bookmarking system. Rather than embellishing each page with superfluous features, Pinterest’s innovation lies in its user-driven visuals. Users organize their interests based on groupings of selected images and have the creative freedom of naming their individual boards. The website minimizes the tendency to type words in the search bar, encouraging users to seek inspiration and discovery by scrolling through photo reels.
When it comes to social networking through mobile devices, photos are also preferable to verbal sharing. The improvement of built-in cameras increases the appeal of using photos, and it is much easier to snap a photograph and upload it than typing out a message while you’re on the go. “I think that photos in general is a category that is blowing up because the devices are getting that much better, the networks are getting that much better,” explained Systrom.
Facebook’s Attempt to Compete: Timeline and a Buy Out
With nearly 500 million mobile users and a decrease in overall popularity, Facebook realized it was time to appeal to users’ visual demands. The website’s redesign strategy featuring Timeline will soon become a mandatory standard across all user profiles. Attempting to encompass the advantages of all social sites into one master network, Timeline uses images to tell the story of each user’s life. The cover photo, like a banner across the top of each individual’s profile, provides an opening for their life’s current chapter. Larger wall photos narrate individual events and the two-column format provides more space for the images. The timeline itself works in a visual-spatial context, allowing users to literally scroll through their years and pinpoint their experiences. Even with all of these visually progressive changes, Facebook quickly bought out Instagram in what is known to be one of the fastest and biggest payouts for a start-up, all to eliminate the fear of competition.
If images are the future of consuming content, what does this mean for non-visual social networking tools? Rather than conforming to a strictly visual language, companies will probably begin to speak a more interrelated design language that features both words and images. Although this may be the future of social marketing, simply designed social networks with honest goals, Instagram and Pinterest are highly responsive to a mass preference of images over words.