Images are the Ultimate Web Hack

There’s something interesting happening with how images are being used on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook to override the link-based nature of the web.

I started thinking about it last year after reading a story about teenagers using text-based images to recreate Facebook on Instagram. But what’s gotten me interested in it lately is the way my Twitter stream is becoming more and more image-based. As news sites are doing more with visuals and data, I’m finding my twitter stream full of rich graphics that aren’t just accompanying the story—they are the story.

It’s slowly changing how I read the news.

The web is all about links and the problem with links is that they require a leap of faith and a commitment. Is the link taking you to where/what you think it is? Is it going to work on your phone? Is it going to take forever to load?

Assuming all that checks out you’ve still got a lot to worry about because visiting a website in 2014 is basically a nightmare.

First there’s the Welcome Ad, then the pop-up asking for your email address. Can we use your location? Do you want to download our app instead? Would you like to take a survey? For your reading convenience, we’ve spread what you’re looking for across 5 pages. Is it cool if we send you push notifications? Are you sure you want to leave?

Even without these risk factors there’s still the matter of having to leave one place for another. The context shift requires a commitment, if only a small one.

Images are instant

Even without these risk factors there’s still the matter of having to leave one place for another. The context shift requires a commitment, if only a small one.

But images speak instantly. They can tell the story directly in your Facebook feed.

Similar to the thing about in-app browsers—that the most popular browser isn’t IE or Firefox or Chrome, it’s whatever your favorite social media app uses to render web—as destination-based browsing fades, the most powerful context is the one you’re already in.

Brute-force content

Every browser, every device renders HTML differently. You can have character encoding problems. Arbitrary character limits. Inability to style/format text. Fragments accidentally omitted.

Images don’t care about any of that. They’re universal. Text-as-image is a guarantee. And unlike most of the stuff the web is made of, these content images are singular, self-contained. It’s the reason meme images are so contagious.

Example: D.I.Y. Twitter Cards

Twitter Summary Cards provide a way to display rich content within Twitter but one of the the limitations is that they’re only visible after the user expands the tweet.

A few months ago I had this idea for taking advantage of Twitter’s inline image display to publish my own custom summary card. The advantage over the official cards, in addition to the design freedom, was that this would display directly in the tweet stream.

It was a way to hack around both the Twitter character limit and the restrictions on the official Twitter card. It’s a simple idea but it’s a good example of the sort of workaround you can only achieve with images.

In-stream storytelling

I get most of my news through Twitter and lately this process of getting-the-news often goes like this.

I see a tweet like this one from Vox. I tap the image, look at it, tap it again, and go back to my Twitter feed.

The graphic wasn’t teasing the story. It was the story. I got what I needed without leaving the context of my Twitter feed.

Here’s another. This tweet from FiveThirtyEight doesn’t even link to a story—the tweet is the end of the road.

Is this… The Future of News??

The Nieman Lab recently wrote a great story about news organizations using chat apps like WhatsApp and WeChat to deliver news to their audiences. It’s not hard to envision a near future where publishers push out image-based atomic news chunks over massive-reach chat networks.

Then there’s Simple News Bot, a nascent Twitter bot that generates inline images with pull quote text overlays. “Formatted to fit your app” and “All you need.”

End

In short, the powerful thing about images is that they represent the only cross-everything multimedia format and the simplest way to bypass the burden of HTTP. They’re the only things capable of telling a full story in one quick shot.

This was also published on Medium.

For more stuff like this, follow me on Twitter.