“A picture is worth a thousand words” This adage tells us that a visual information would usually carry way more data than the same volume of textual or numerical data. But it only tells one quarter of what I am going to express in this article.
Recently I attended a seminar and listened to a great speech of an IT specialist who was talking about the awesomeness of data visualization, which I have never heard of before the seminar, though I have been vaguely aware of its existence for years. Essentially, data visualization is to put loads of verbal or numerical information in the form of a graph or a diagram, or infographic to present to our cognition in visual format. It certainly works. An infographic could easily save many pages of texts or statistical numbers. And what’s more, people are more inclined to read visual information than textual or numerical representation and it’s much easier to comprehend large sum of data in a short time. To demonstrate the power of infographic , I used the example of David Mccandless’ interesting study on Twitter. The infographic that well grasps the results and implications of this twitter study is presented as follows:
Here is the verbal representation of the result of this interesting Twitter study:
The research on the Twitter user’s habit showed that around half of the Twitter users are actually quite inactive and would be willing to tweet about their lives on their Twitter accounts less than once a week. Meanwhile, 20 percent of the Twitter accounts are basically dead and virtually idle. This together accounts for around 70 percent of the total users of Twitter. Among the rest active 30 percent of the Twitter accounts, only 5 percent of the all Twitter accounts have more than 100 followers, whereas another 5 percent of all Twitter accounts are making the loudest twittering frequently responsible for 75 percent of the noise on Twitter, of which 32 percent accounts are literally automatic bots and not even real trollfaces behind the computer. The remaining 20 percent of the Twitter accounts then belong to the regular active users’ group who talk a bit but no one really cares much. Meanwhile, it is found that women are slightly more enthusiastic in using Twitters than men, with 55 percent of the whole Twitter accounts appear to be of female gender.
Now, pay attention at this point (take a deep breath and rinse your throat a bit), let’s do some interesting tests based on what you have just learned from the previous sections:
Okay, after the test, now let me continue another quarter of what I am going to express in this article. Here is what I predict most of you would do (at least I know I will):
You were randomly flipping various internet pages impetuously, then some how you accidentally got slid into this funny dude’s blog and found this article. After a rough glimpse of the title, scrolling down the page. “Wait a minute”, there comes an interesting figure with little people and it’s about THE Twitter! “Interesting”, as you were probably mumbling to yourself, you started to examine closely with the picture and I bet it wouldn’t take long before you started to make some unnoticed noise again “Ah! Oh! Hmm! Ach-sooo!” and then gave a bit smirking face towards the funny image, “Right, Twitter, Right…”. After you feel pretty good at yourself for a while, you start to get curious to find out what else information is given in the texts above and below the graph, then you start to scan around and either spend double or triple the time to read carefully everything I wrote and then do the poll or glance from paragraph to paragraph and jump directly to the polls.
Either way, only through reading all the text that you will find actually this article is not really bashing on how stupid Twitters are, but using it as a mere example for my information processing theory, though I think you would probably learn more about Twitters’ brutal facts than what I really want to talk about here – that humans are more inclined to accept information from visual cognition than anything else first.
Of course this is not something new. It’s natural that way. A picture is worth a thousand words, right?
True, I would probably have to come up with additional 500 words to fully interpret every major implication of that Twitter study finding; whereas that infographic speaks it all by itself. But why are we more inclined to receiving visual information? Because naturally visual information is way more straightforward than any other information medium to our human beings. We see the world, not really feel, touch, smell or read the world (in most cases, as long as you have normal sight or short sight with glasses). What I understand this natural preference of information medium is that: 1. visual representation could store complex and abundant information that could not be achieved in other mediums with the comparable volume; and 2. our human information processing, or cognition, have a much broader bandwidth for the visual information 12-lane superhighway than other 4-lane or probably 2-lane 60km/h limited regional roads for aural, haptic, and even verbal cognition processing. I am sure it would be much more self-explanatory if I drew a picture for illustration, but at this point I rather encode those information with English alphabets so you could decipher yourself and create your own imagination, whatever it looks like.
Whatever it looks like, I think you more or less get the idea of the first 50 percent of what I am trying to express in the article, now here comes the rest of the half (finally!):
What has been discussed above essentially provides with a theoretical support to the contention that it is more inclined to process information based on visual cognition due to the fast rate of visual information processing and the high efficiency of visual representation regarding information storage. This is basically why data visualization nowadays is a mega sensation online and offline. Good for the IT engineers!
After realizing this cognition fuzz, it occurred almost instantaneously to my mind that: hey, this explains why nowadays people are getting more impatient with all sorts of textual and numerical information and prefer to watch TV, youtube video, and funky pictures!
I always thought people are just getting dumber and dumber in waiting to be drenched with all sorts of straightforward visual information while spending less and less time to calm down and read. Now it seems I am just a senseless bigot after all. According to the definition of reading on Wikipedia, reading is a complex cognitive process of decoding symbols for the intention of constructing or deriving meaning. My understanding of reading is: for instance if you are reading English texts, written in the diacritic alphabet system, you need to scan those little alphabetic images into your brain, then decode them to match the aural verbal patterns for final cognition. At least whenever I am reading something in English, I’d watch each word carefully and then involuntarily start the subvocalization process at the same time (mine’s actually quite fast for I have been an experienced reader), or to a lesser extent, start associating words with visual memories directly (more in my Chinese reading). The transmission and the involvement of other information processing route such as the vocal information processing could be the major bottleneck that reduce the cognitive processing bandwidth of the textual reading compared to the straightforward visual information processing. At the same time, in nowadays information era, where people are literally stuffed with overloading information everywhere, voluntarily visual contents are screened at first glance and appear more appealing to information intake than the slower process of reading. In this sense, it is not that people turn more “impatient, impetuous, superficial, and stupid” in the information era of 21st century, but people nowadays simply prefer the easiest and fastest way to digest massive amount of information. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a video, I guess, it’s worth a thousand frames? At this point, stop reading and start thinking, does those infographics in this article help you grasp those ideas in a faster and easier manner than just reading the texts?
So now there’s a different theory to explain why more people are getting information from watching rather than the good-old-fashion reading! (other than people being more impetuous, impatient, and stupider?)
That’s why I’d always like to put some informative pictures as visual aids in my articles. It certainly helps readers to grasp a few points out of my muttering and blathering. However, this does not justify downplaying of the importance of textual reading. Information intake is like the soup intake, visual information being cup soup and readings being the French soup (or some other nice soup). Nowadays fast food is the trend as we have little time on nutrient intake and need to prepare and drink quickly. So there comes the cup soup to give us a taste. The French soup might take much longer time to prepare and enjoy, but it is always a better choice for the food for thought. Reading may take longer time to digest, but the range of information, especially in terms of abstract and conceptual description, could not be replaced by simple visualization. For me, plain text could always accurately address information and expression in a nuanced manner, especially for my verbose didacticism, and visual aids could always be a handy supplement.
P.S. My bold hypothesis:
While western languages are written in the diacritic alphabet system, the reading of the language might have more to do with subvocalization than Chinese, which was based on the logogram system where each character represent a unique visual image. In this sense, Chinese might be more concise to store information and easier/faster to be read and preserved and be used as records and a written language; whereas Western languages might be more connected to the vocal pronunciation and therefore might be easier and faster to learn and be used in the oral communication. That’s probably why others often find Chinese a very difficult language to learn and why Chinese as a written language stands the test of thousands of years and remain largely stable.