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January, 2011

On Infographics

An argument against the overuse and ineffectiveness of infographics.

I'm about to take a fairly unpopular (and probably self-contradictory) stance: I think infographics have jumped the shark.

I'm not talking about any particular piece of data visualization, though the new metafilter one pushed me over the edge, rather I'm talking about the entire phenomenom of turning a whole bunch of information into a pretty, but mostly incomprehensible, picture and presenting it to the world. Not that they're all useless, on occasion I do find data displayed in such a way that it is made more comprehensible, but more often than not I find these things to be disposable pieces of content created to impress the viewer into a sort of submissive state where they pass judgement on a purely aesthetic level.

Now creating something for purely aesthetic purposes is certainly not a problem. I like pretty things as much as the next guy, but these things are presented as having some sort of higher purpose of helping people to better understand some large dataset. Which they hardly ever do, since that would require people spending enough time with them to actually understand the point they're trying to make.

While I've been thinking about this for awhile, it really came together when I read this quote from Jaron Lanier about WikiLeaks: "A sufficiently copious flood of data creates an illusion of omniscience, and that illusion can make you stupid."

Where I struggle with this a little, is that it feels fairly contradictory to some of the stuff I wrote in Everything is Media, specifically the bit about people too often focusing on content instead of the medium. It seems to me that that's exactly what an infographic does best: Wrap a bunch of not-so-interesting content in a bow that's pretty enough that you take your attention off what's inside and instead focus on the pretty bow. Oooohh ... Pretty. Look at that chart. Look how big they made that number. Which makes me wonder what the real content of an infographic is. I suspect it's something like: "Hey, we're smart and with it and super in touch with what's going on on the web, that's how we knew all the kids were doing data viz." That's what the big companies who are throwing them up on the web are doing (I can't think of a good example of this right now ... maybe Sprint?). Then there's that infographic-as-art, which the New York Times has nailed (for these, the info is so obviously secondary to the graphic that they feel more like New Yorker Comics than something born out of a quarterly report). But that still leaves me conflicted about something like what Metafilter put out. I mean it's not bad or evil and it made people happy, I guess I just wonder why. What is it about information presented in this way that makes people want to share it even though I suspect very few of those tweeting the link could recite back any specific datapoint (I know I can't ... except maybe the one Waxy mentioned in his link). So what gives?

Update (1/26/11): I was just going through my spam comments and noticed one in there from none other than Matt Haughey, creator of Metafilter. Matt points to the original discussion, which I totally missed, and adds quite a bit more context to the Metafilter graphic: "While I'm not a fan of the plethora of infographics available online these days (and lame SEO attempts to capitalize on them), I decided to make a tongue-in-cheek infographic for MetaFilter, and as everyone behind the scenes at Team MeFi scrambled in the last week to gather up all the interesting statistics we could, I threw it all into photoshop to produce this: The 2010 Year In MetaFilter Infographic. Enjoy!"

January 3, 2011
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.