Ever hear the saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’?
Of course you have. It’s a party line. It’s supposed to be the be-all, end-all truth of why images ultimately trump wordy explanations. And most people believe it. They won’t read exploratory essays, but they look at one chart or graph and go, “Oh, that is such a good point!”
As a writer, I may be slightly biased, but I believe that this is a problem.
I would like to illustrate the problem by discussing the chart below, which has been grating on my mind for several days.
To begin: I have no bone to pick with the digital comics movement. I think digital comics are absolutely necessary to sustain the comics industry, just as digital books are necessary to sustain the publishing industry. It’s a natural progression. Not that I think paper is going anywhere. But that’s another topic entirely.
Here’s the issue I have with this chart: it makes an error in logic that people who are only looking at images and glossing over their corresponding explanations might not notice.
At the top: there are 1 million print periodical readers—one can assume—of comics. One million people who read printed single issues. It’s a generous estimate, to be sure, but according to this chart, there are nearly one million people going to comic stores to buy their paper monthlies.
Then, just below that, the chart proclaims that there are 75 million tablet computer users. Okay. 200 million smartphone users. Okay. 1 billion desktop computer users. Okay. These are most likely well-researched facts, and I’ll believe them.
Here is the issue: people who own a laptop, people who own a smartphone, and people who own a tablet are not necessarily interested in purchasing comics on them. What this chart does is make the jump to assume that the millions of people who own these devices—that are, of course, capable of reading digital comics—will automatically be reading them. Which is, of course, not the case.
The first statistic is based on the number of people who purchase monthly printed comics. That means they are buying the comics from their local shop, newsstand, or bookstore. If we use the same thought process for the rest of the chart, we are effectively arguing that there are 75 million tablet computer users who read comics on their tablets.
What should be depicted on the top portion of the chart to make it agree, logically, with the rest, is the number of people who have access to a local comic shop, bookstore, or newsstand, and are therefore perfectly capable of buying comics immediately, just as tablet users are. That is many more millions of people than the chart suggests.
It also means advertisers can put money into these places to cater to new readers of print comics. People who see the physical copies displayed at Barnes & Noble, Target, or wherever, may purchase Avengers toys and decide they want to read Avengers comics. If we’re marketing to everyone who has the ability to buy and read print, well, we’re marketing to most people in the United States.
If you put a bunch statistics and little icons of people on a chart, it makes viewers assume that the chart is a more accurate depiction than any word-based argument. This chart claims that the digital market, which includes millions of people who do not read comics at all, is ridiculously more vast than the print market. This could be the case, since the digital market reaches many places that the print market cannot. But the discrepancy is not nearly as large as the chart indicates, due to its accountable logical error.
And that, my friends, is the problem with charts.
More often that not, internet users and readers will look at a graphic and assume it is the absolute truth because it is a visual representation. When people assume that an argument can be made more vividly with a picture, they see a picture and don’t even question the argument. They will see little icons of people and go, “Oh! I get it.” They will not look at the fine print, or venture beyond what is displayed in front of them. Because ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Supposedly.
Visuals are, of course, irrevocably useful in illustrating points. Images can be used for many things that are beyond the realm possibility for words. Comics themselves are combinations of words and images, and the art is an integral part of the storytelling.
But when images begin to replace words and replace their arguments, and do so erroneously, we have a problem. We spread information that is not entirely accurate. We even perpetuate myths. We make things easier for people who would much rather see icons and arrows and well-designed flow charts than think about what they’re seeing. That makes the picture itself, in comparison to language, worth absolutely nothing.