The 'Cliffs Notes Web' Has Won

We scan the web for quick markers that indicate things we'll be interested in, whether on a social site like Pinterest or a Forbes blog.

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This morning Christopher Jobson, creator of ThisIsColossal.com, tweeted this:

In subsequent tweets, Jobson noted that visitors from Pinterest.com "spend more time looking at more pages" than visitors referred from any other site. If you're not familiar with Pinterest, Alexis Madrigal has a comprehensive introduction. But visiting the site should tell you most of what you need to know about it. Users "pin" and categorize images they find compelling from websites; other users can repin them and add to their own collections. Each image is linked back to the originating source.

The difference Jobson draws between Pinterest and Tumblr is an interesting one. Comparisons between the sites are often made; Tumblr likewise facilitates the resharing of content. The difference lies in the objects being shared. Tumblr allows users to write full blog posts, embed videos, share photo galleries. In Pinterest, the image exists almost on its own. There's room for a brief description (newly limited to 500 characters), but the visual emphasis is on the image itself which, when clicked, takes the user to the image's originating site.

When the web was first gaining broad use, it was common for site designers to use "click here" for outgoing links. As in: If you'd like to learn more about Pinterest, click here. Usability experts quickly pointed out that, given the underline and distinct color that most links carry, links often attracted more visual attention than the surrounding text. Drawing someone's attention to the meaning-free words "click here" was discouraged. Would you like to learn more about Pinterest? The link that catches the eye now has meaningful representation.

We trained ourselves to quickly scan and evaluate links, a tendency perfected and exploited by Twitter. Brevity is fashionable -- the ever-hip Awl's Twitter feed, for example, goes out of its way to be terse. This is the gateway web now: blurb, link. Sometimes combined, sometimes not.

What makes Pinterest unique is that the blurbs are images. The front page of Pinterest is an old-fashioned link blog using pictures instead of words. It's not a blog platform; it's image Twitter. Jobson's observation is unsurprising because the user is left wanting more context for what they see, context that on Tumblr is usually provided.

The teaser is not a new addition to media, of course. Tabloid dailies like the New York Post use similar blurbs (the "wood") to entice people to lay out 75 cents. What's changed is that every media company is now in the race for similarly quick engagement.

The implications for site traffic -- and therefore revenue -- is real. Last week, the New York Times Magazine published a long piece about how companies target consumers. The article was summarized and excerpted by Forbes, which saw enormous traffic, more than one million visits, as a result. Blogger Nick O'Neill noted this, arguing that the original Times Magazine piece "didn't have the title it deserved." It didn't have a compelling blurb, in other words. So Forbes' Kashmir Hill provided one.

The rise of social media and the incomprehensible glut of content has primed us for curation. Increasingly, we look for quick markers that indicate things we'll be interested in. Forbes provides a gloss on a long New York Times piece; Pinterest replaces the "click here" of a text link to a compelling visual with a meaningful representation.

No wonder people are actually clicking.




Image: Rebecca J. Rosen.

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Philip Bump is a former politics writer for The Atlantic Wire.

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