The tree’s branches are real but only there to support the leaves. The sizzle is enticing but the steak is why you sit down. The eye candy is cool, but the Web is really about words, and mostly written words at that.

The Net is richer and richer year by year, more stuff and more kinds of stuff and more channels it flows on. And then the apparatus around the stuff, the aggregators and recombinators and crawlers and widgets. I watch all this churn and I still think it’s the endless stream of characters across the world’s billions of screens that are the payload.

Consider, for example, from last month, Rob Scoble’s Exploring the 2010 Web. He’s got some thoughtful things to say on the Web and how to use it. Now cast your eyes to the right of the page. I see the usual clutter of blog apparatus; an opaque grid of little “subscribe to me” glyphs, some FriendFeed flow-of-the-moment, a few unexplained faces labeled “Members (949)”, then we’re into the Facebook crud, a map, and some trailing links that really should be above the fold.

Just distractions; none of it remotely as interesting as what he’s got to say in the main stream of text.

It turns out that the first time I read the piece, I guess Scoble was in the middle of that WordPress rejiggering, and there was no apparatus down the right at all; just the headline and the stream of link-rich, thought-rich, text. I really liked it. I was seeing, I thought, the core message getting the focus and respect it deserved, that’s all.

I am arguing that:

  • Words are more valuable than pictures.

  • Text is more valuable than audio or video.

  • Twitter is more valuable than FriendFeed.

At the end of the day, how could this not be true? Social networking gives me the warm-and-fuzzies and YouTube shows me what happened today in Iran, but action only comes from understanding and understanding only comes from explanation and explanation only happens in words.

It’s profoundly important, as Clay Shirky argues, that now we can all tell each other our own stories about ourselves and talk together about the big stories that everyone’s hearing. But that’s all words, just words.

And by the way, I’d rather have the text of Clay’s speech than the video. For things that matter, written words are unambiguously better than speech. To start with, anything that matters isn’t just written, it’s usually rewritten repeatedly (and more important, condensed). Plus, it has hyperlinks. Plus, it’s smaller and cheaper to ship around. Plus, it’s searchable. Plus, it works on more devices. (I acknowledge that only the first of these is fundamental; but that alone would be enough).

Thus, the fact that plain ol’ blogging and shiny new Twitter are still pretty well at the center of the value proposition of the serious part of the Net. Blogging has mostly seen off podcasting, and Twitter sailed smoothly away from its richer multimedia-enriched competitors.

What matters is getting the right words, undiluted, in front of the right people. That’s what the Internet is for. Everything else is (at best) the icing on the cake.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Sophie (Jun 22 2009, at 01:02)

I agree except for the dew drops on the pink rose that features on the right hand of the page while I am reading. Although you could write a poem about it, a photo is very nice.


From: Morton Jons (Jun 22 2009, at 01:08)

Given that you have only two subscriptions and four comments on FriendFeed, it does not look like you have used the service in a significant way. What is the basis for your judgment that Twitter is greater than FriendFeed?


From: Jim Millen (Jun 22 2009, at 01:17)

I'm relieved to see that I'm not the only one! Maybe it's a certain mindset, but I'd pretty much always prefer text to video. Especially frustrating when seeking tutorials - sometimes a video tutorial is great, but most of the time a well written text tutorial with screenshots suits me better.


From: John Cowan (Jun 22 2009, at 01:33)

I wish 'twere so. There are far too many late-breaking ideas, new software, etc. etc. that are only documented by video: you have to watch the author blathering on for an hour or more to get the substance of what the slides tell you (if they are meaty slides and not just eye candy slides). All hail the volunteer transcribers of the Internet.


From: Matt Edwards (Jun 22 2009, at 05:22)

This may be true for a substantial minority of Internet users, but lurking on the sidelines are a massive and ever-increasing population of users who see the net as a cheaper alternative vehicle for HDTV, radio, telephony, games, etc. Entertainments, diversions, that essentially have nothing whatsoever to do with The Conversation, The Community, or the creation of real, lasting value. Change is in the air, and the content you and I value today may soon be pushed aside by market forces looking to capitalize on this nascent demand for entertainment programming. With Net Neutrality under the legal microscope, we may find ourselves competing with and subsiding this payload in the not too distant future.


From: Norman Walsh (Jun 22 2009, at 05:23)

I couldn't agree more.

Another benefit of text: I get to decide how much attention to give it. I can skim several pages in a few seconds. I can spend several minutes pouring carefully over a few paragraphs.

Audio and video demands my attention for at least several minutes. Sturgeon's Law guarantees that that's usually a waste of at least several minutes of my time.


From: Tkil (Jun 22 2009, at 06:52)

Tim, thanks for summarizing the "text is king" concept so well!

I've been more and more put out by people posting videos instead of text articles, and you managed to put that irritation into words for me.

The only thing that I'd consider adding is the concept of pace: one of the advantages of text (over audio or video) is that I can consume it at *my* pace, not at a pace dictated by the source.


From: Paul B (Jun 22 2009, at 09:23)

I disagree that text is always the most effective means. Although I agree that there are many contexts where video and audio in lieu of text are (increasingly) obscuring the message.

But I agree with you, I think, in the sense of the following:

The medium is the means to the message.

I'll take a good, effective message over a hand tweaked layout, or a $100 MM special effects budget, any day.

(One advantage of the open Net; if/when the message starts becoming too obscured, we can and do slice and dice until it shines through again.)


From: Kevin W. Parker (Jun 22 2009, at 11:15)

As I am fond of saying (or writing), "A thousand words are worth a picture, and they take less time to download."


From: John Schneider (Jun 22 2009, at 12:11)

While I can agree mostly with your prioritization of text over other forms in terms of value, I don't think I'd be happy without the other media formats accompanying the text.

I and I think many others are likely to initially consume information in one of the other forms first and then use the text to get to the root of the matter.


From: Kevin Steele (Jun 22 2009, at 13:00)

I want to agree that text is more important. But, on the other hand, contextual data is important and adds value. As an example read a transcript of a speech by Obama, or King, or your favorite orator. Then listen to or watch the actual speech. Which has more impact. The text is the same but the value is different. A transcript preserves the text but many times loses other valuable aspects of a speech.


From: Brendan (Jun 22 2009, at 21:41)

> I am arguing that:

> * Words are more valuable than pictures.

> * Text is more valuable than audio or video.

> * Twitter is more valuable than FriendFeed.

Nothing new really. John B. Evans (who used to be Rupert Murdoch's second hand man with regard to technology in the 1990s and who helped convince Rupert to buy Etak years ago) always knew this as an intelligent person in the publishing business:

Poised on the crest of the digital wave, media executive John B. Evans remains committed to the power of the written word. Well-crafted text, he believes, can bring clarity to complex social and political issues.

"Written language is the crucible that holds Western civilization," Evans says. "People who decide to have an abortion or not to have an abortion or to switch political parties make those decisions often as a result of reading articles in a magazine they trust."

His opinions should come as no surprise. The Welsh-born, English-raised Evans has a rich history in journalism. Publisher of the Village Voice during its so-called "golden age" in the late 1970s, Evans began a fruitful association with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation when it bought the Voice in 1977.


From: Tathagata Chakraborty (Jun 23 2009, at 00:06)

I agree (to a certain extent :)). Text is always more valuable when you are doing serious research - when you need to understand the thing, by occasionally rereading some parts of the text. Video and audio are in generally helpful for an overview of something, and as tutorials for beginners.


From: Tim Caynes (Jun 23 2009, at 02:21)

I'm so very bored with visiting 3 or more venues to see the same <140 characters syndicated up their own selves like some inept lazy arse api dog chasing its own very short visibility tail while I'm making instant coffee in a microwave oven and bemoaning the eradication of consciousness.


From: Ling (Jun 23 2009, at 22:54)

I love text, more than other media, because I can learn more thorough and confidently from the written words. But I still believe "a picture is worth a thousand words", and pictures and musics are both more primordial, so more generally accessible media than languages, considering not everyone speaks English or Chinese.


From: Emma (Jun 25 2009, at 04:54)

And, where Ling implies he/she can read English AND Chinese, I can only read English!

However, audio can also be useful for those that *can* speak the language in question, but find reading it v. difficult - perhaps because they're dyslexic. Someone's already pointed out that audio can show the emphasis that text can't - others have pointed out the search/skim-ability of text.

Surely the ideal is both? (Though that's v. time consuming to create)


From: len (Jun 29 2009, at 11:37)

"At the end of the day, how could this not be true?"

Because at the other end of the wire may be a consumer incapable of comprehending the words so wisely and well-crafted or who does not care to read anything past the elevator pitch.

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a faster horse. Text did not turn the internet into the multi-billion dollar business it is today. Pictures did. The web is not a monomedia system. I'm not sure where you're going with this line of thinking except broke.


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