Some years ago — it could have been 20 — I read an article by Umberto Eco that seems appropriate to this topic. I don’t remember all the particulars of the piece, or even in which magazine it appeared. But I seem to recall that the semiotician and novelist set forth the notion that we might be moving, beyond a post-literate society, to becoming post-verbal, returning to means of communication common in medieval days when, say, a pub called the Rose and Crown would be identified by a hanging sign showing pictures of those things, rather than words.
The premise would seem excessively alarmist, or at least premature, since the decades since I read that have seen an explosion of the written word on the Web. More people are writing, and reading, a greater profusion of words than at any time in the history of this planet.
But sometimes, we are faced with images alone, and words fail us. On friends’ Facebook pages, I’m occasionally confronted with images that just beg for accompanying text to explain them, but nary a word is offered.
And recently, I found myself in a world that brought the Eco piece back powerfully.
I was going to (and eventually did) write a light item for the ADCO blog about the addictiveness of Pinterest, which has hooked a couple of my co-workers. The spark was a study indicating that 20 percent of women who are online were into the site.
At first, I supposed that only women could possibly get into it, for as I perused the boards created by my female co-workers, I was overwhelmed by all the images of food and housewares and decorating ideas. As I said in that ADCO blog post, those screens looked like “the result of Edward Scissorhands going to town on a 10-foot-high stack of old copies of Better Homes and Gardens and Southern Living.”
But as I went through the little signup ritual for creating my own account, I saw how quickly the screen would morph into something that more interested me.
Here’s what happens: You sign in to the site. You are offered a screen full of slightly-bigger-than-thumbnail images. You are asked to “like” the ones that appeal to you. What you “like” affects what you see as you continue to scroll down. It’s rather fascinating to watch as the algorithm does its work. For a time, for a long time, the wave of images coming at you seems never-ending. The scroll bar on the right will seem to be approaching the bottom, then suddenly it will glide back up toward the middle as a new load of images arrives.
I saw a lot of images that interested me a great deal, but I couldn’t decide whether to “like” them or not. I mean, what does it say if you click “like” on a picture of a B-26 going down in flames? I don’t like that it’s going down, with American airmen dying in it. But I do want the program to know that I find images of WWII warplanes interesting.
Or what about a picture of Michael Caine as spy Harry Palmer? Will it think I like the raincoat, or “The Ipcress File?” This is a place where words would help.
And what does it mean when I “like” a picture of Marilyn Monroe? I mean, have you ever seen a picture of her you didn’t like, on some level or other? I haven’t. And yet, after I liked one or two of them, they kept coming in a profusion that suggested that Pinterest thought I had some kind of Elton-John-like celebrity fetish centered on her. I continued to “like” them, because that was my honest and uncomplicated answer. But I didn’t want it to offer me nothing but movie-star pictures going forward.
Just because I like Sean Connery doesn’t mean I want to see pictures of Rock Hudson (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And my liking a picture of Natalie Wood doesn’t mean I want to see Robert Wagner. And what’s with these Jody Foster pictures you keep throwing at me? I haven’t liked a single one, and they keep coming. Who do you think I am, John Hinckley? And just because I click on an interesting diagram of old military headgear doesn’t mean I want to look at one Confederate kepi after another!
So here’s where you end up, or where I ended up anyway: Pinterest now “knows” me well enough that one out of 10 or 12 things it throws at me will be mildly interesting. Which I guess is an achievement for a computer program.
But the language of social media — “like” and “friend” and other terms that so often don’t exactly describe the relationship in a given case — still needs work. Let’s not give up on words just yet.
Below are some of the pictures I “liked” as they were thrown at me. But really: What does it mean to “like” a picture of Bonnie and Clyde?