On 15 September 2011, a company called 1000memories blogged about the amount of photos on our planet. In this very interesting article, the author presented the pink infographic shown here on the right (click on it for a larger image). You see the size of the Library of Congress's photograph collection, almost invisibly small compared to the amount of photos on facebook.
The image went viral, as they say. It was picked up in blogosphere and penetrated powerpoint presentations at conferences as well. Google 'facebook flickr library of congress' and you'll get the picture (pun intended).
The article, by Jonathan Good, is well-researched and the graph is truly powerful. Also, he lists his sources, so we can verify that his numbers are true.
Then, looking at the numbers and looking at the graph a couple of times, it suddenly struck me. The proportions can't be right.
Do the math
Good's graphic represents the number of photos (a one-dimensional thing) as a square, a surface (a two-dimensional thing). There's nothing wrong with that, in fact it's a good way if you want to see something really big in proportion to something much much smaller. 1000memories are based in the US, so we can safely assume that '140 billion' is 14 with 10 noughts. (If they were French, it would have been 3 more noughts). And, he says, Flickr has 6 billion and the Library of Congress (LoC) has 10.000 times less than facebook, i.e. 14 million. So far so good.
Now, if you want to draw those numbers as squares in the proper proportions, you have to know the length of one side of each of those squares. That's easy: just take the square root of those numbers. That's the fourth column. Next, you divide them all by the smallest result to get the proportions relative to one. Thus, facebook is a square with sides of 100, Flickr is a square with sides of 21 and the LoC is a square with sides of 1.
Now, on a computer screen, you work in pixels. A single pixel is rather small, so let's scale it up by 5, to get a square of 500 x 500 for facebook, one of 105 x 105 for Flickr and one of 5 x 5 for the LoC. That looks something like this:
Still a spectacular difference. But not as dramatic as the pink one, I think you'll agree.
Again, I have nothing against Jonathan Good's article. His point is clear and well-put: we are witnessing an explosion of images, so let's not forget that we need good ways to keep the images we cherish. As for the pink graphic, there is no harm done. People make mistakes, that's why they put erasers on pencils.
But I couldn't find any record of anyone else noticing the error. I can't imagine I'm the only one who noticed, but would I really be the only one who noticed and wrote it down?
I find that strange. The image took off to lead a life of it's own, it was quoted and copied by many people, reputed people such as UK Collections Trust CEO Nick Poole and Saatchi & Saatchi Media Strategist Yi Chen.
How can that happen? There's only one answer to that: we are gullible beings. An image doesn't need to be correct nor true to life to have an influence. It can be totally wrong. What counts is it's impact. The more gripping, the more successful.
And while you're listening to that, you may brood over this annotated version of the pink graph that went viral.