Picting, not Writing, is the Literacy of Today’s Youth

Is a picture really worth 1,000 words?


Two interesting observations:

  • In the K–12 classroom, today’s youth spend 90 percent of the time with text-based materials and 10 percent of the time with image-based materials.
  • Outside the K–12 classroom, today’s youth spend 90 percent of the time with image-based materials and 10 percent of the time with text-based materials.

(CN is saying that ES is exaggerating (again). OK, OK … The percentages aren’t exact —but they are absolutely in the right ballpark.)

Let’s start with Snapchat, the social media service where pictures users send to each other disappear after being viewed for 10 seconds (though a "story" — made up of sequences of pictures — last 24 hours). Why do the pictures disappear on Snapchat? Just as verbal conversation disappears, so now picture conversations disappear. Snapchat embodies the ephemerality of conversing — but in pictures.

Who is "picting," then: Roughly 30 percent of millennials in the United States visit the Snapchat app 18 times per day and spend roughly 30 minutes a day using it! Here are some more provocative stats about Snapchat:

  • Number of Snapchat users: daily 158 million, monthly 301 million
  • Average number of Snaps per day: 2.5 billion
  • Percentage of Snapchat daily active users that are in North America: 43 percent
  • Average number of photos shared on Snapchat every second: 9,000 snaps per second
  • Percentage of Snapchat users that use it because their content disappears: 35 percent
  • Average number of times per day Snapchat daily users visit the app: 18 times

From the SEC filing for Snap Inc.:

  • "Snap Inc. is a camera company … "
  • "In the way that the flashing cursor became the starting point for most products on desktop computers, we believe that the camera screen will be the starting point for most products on smartphones … "

Ahhh … It is called Snapchat — not Writechat. Picting is primary; writing — adding a note to a picture — is an add-on, is secondary.

But wait, Snapchat has a "story" function; maybe millennials are learning how to create a "story"? Ahhh … no. A Snapchat "story" is just a sequence of images — that’s it. One records a series of images that ostensibly "tell a story.” But a good story has a beginning, a middle, and a point. However, a Snapchat "story" is like the image version of  the experience we all have had listening to a friend who can’t tell a "story" — who just talks in run-on sentences that make no point.

Not to be left behind, Facebook is positioning itself as a "video first" company. No one wants to read — let alone write — so, Facebook is now a video-based social networking site. Here are some comments from Mr. Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg himself: 

  • "I see video as a megatrend," from Hollywood Reporter.
  • "People are creating and sharing more video, and we think it’s pretty clear that video is only going to become more important," from USA Today.

Moving pictures are more important than written words. If (emphasis on "if") a picture is worth a 1,000 words, then moving pictures must be worth… what?

Instagram — "There’s no doubt that Instagram is a visual platform through and through" — is another "picting" site; here are some stats:

  • Total number of monthly active Instagram users: daily 400 million, monthly 700 million (Fun Fact: double the users compared to Snapchat. Phew!)
  • 20 percent of all internet users are on Instagram
  • 80 percent of Instagram users come from outside of the U.S.
  • Note: over half of all millennials (with access to the internet) use Instagram every single day — and: Instagram is the second-most used social network among teenagers (ages 13–17)
  • Number of Photos uploaded per day: 95 million, up from 70 million last year

And, last but not least… even the textual captions on Instagram pictures are visually-oriented:

And, then there is YouTube, the "classic" visually-oriented social network. Here’s some stats:

  • How many people in the U.S. use YouTube: 180.1 million (Google says there are 321.4 million people in the U.S. as of 2015. Thus, about 56 percent — more than half — of the U.S. population use YouTube!)
  • YouTube overall reaches more 18-34 and 18-49 year-olds than any cable network in the U.S.
  • Percentage of U.S. internet users, aged 13-17 (teens) that use YouTube: 91 percent
  • Percentage of U.S. millennials that use YouTube: 81%
  • From Google’s official blog: Millennials prefer watching video online vs. watching on TV approximately 2-to-1
  • Percentage of U.S. Gen X that use YouTube: 58 percent
  • Percentage of U.S. Baby Boomers that use YouTube: 43 percent
  • Type of YouTube content most preferred by millennials: Videos uploaded by people
  • Average time spent on YouTube per session: 40 minutes
  • Estimated number amount of new videos uploaded to YouTube every minute: 400 hours 

And picting is not limited to just youth: look at the phenomenal growth of Pinterest amongst adults. Here’s some stats:

  • Total Number of monthly active Pinterest users: monthly 150 million
  • Number of Pinterest users from the U.S.: 70 million
  • Total number of Pinterest Pins: 50 billion+
  • Total number of Pinterest Boards: 1 billion+
  • Total number of Pinterest Users who save Shopping Pins on boards daily: 2 million
  • 81 percent of Pinterest users are actually females
  • 40 percent of new signups are men; 60 percent of new signups are women
  • Men account for only 7 percent of total pins on Pinterest
  • Median age of a Pinterest user is 40, however majority of active pinners are below 40

But, don’t count millennials out! Millennials use Pinterest as much as Instagram! (Hmm: that data is from 2014 — and a lot has happened since then to Snapchat and Instagram!) Bottom line on Pinterest: Words are an add-on; images are primary. 

Now that we have established that picting is a real trend — and one that is significantly engaged in by the youth of today, it’s time to ask this question: Is the trend towards picting, and away from writing, a good thing for today’s youth?  Here’s a pro and here’s a con:

Pro: Since 2008, we (CN and ES) have worked in a primary school in Singapore, helping the administrators and teachers transition from a didactic pedagogy to an inquiry pedagogy. As witnessed by their top test rankings, Singapore is the best in the world at drill pedagogy. But Singapore’s Ministry of Education understands that drill pedagogy doesn’t develop children that are entrepreneurial, imaginative — so Singapore is trying to change their school’s pedagogy. Hmm: Maybe America could learn something from Singapore? (See an earlier blog post for a more in-depth analysis of the pedagogical transition taking place in Singapore.)

Key in Singaporean school’s transition was the use of mobile technologies. After all, if we want children to do inquiry and ask questions, the children need a way to answer their questions. So, with support from the Wireless Reach Project (Qualcomm, Inc.), each third and fourth grader at "our" Singaporean primary school was provided with a handheld computing device equipped with WiFi and cellular connectivity — 24/7, inside the school and outside the school, internet connectivity. When a question arose, the youngsters would say: "ask the phone" — a shorthand for "search the internet."

Along with 24/7 internet access, we gave the students a suite of apps, designed — using LCD (Learner-Centered Design) — expressly for the youngsters, that support concept mapping, writing, charting, and most importantly drawing and animating (Sketchy). What we were told by the teachers and by some of the students themselves is this: The struggling learners preferred to express themselves in Sketchy using drawings and animations — not writing.

Why? We were told this: Writing was too easy to grade "right" or "wrong." And for the struggling learners, "wrong" was, of course, the more typical. But, when asked by their teachers to explain how their drawing and animations did demonstrate their understanding — their correct understanding, in fact — of a science process, say, the struggling learners felt comfortable explaining their drawings and animations to the teachers. Clearly words were important, but as a companion to drawings and animations.

Con: In 1991, Mark Guzidal, then a graduate student in ES’s research group at the University of Michigan — and now a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology — designed a simple-to-use, education-oriented, multimedia authoring tool we called "MediaText."  Tony Fadell, then an undergraduate student also in ES’s research group, started a company (Constructive Instruments, Inc.) and made MediaText into a commercial product. (For calibration: with Windows 95, 1995 was the "official" start of the public internet.) And, in 1992, MediaText was given a "Top 6 Educational Software" award. MediaText was really quite cool!  (FYI: Not particularly astute at business, ES signed onto a "bad" (financially-speaking) deal: Constructive Instruments went bankrupt, and its CEO, Tony, went on to better things. (Go ahead, Google "Tony Fadell.")


Figure 1 shows two screen images of MediaText documents. On the left was a typical document: Text taking up its usual position on the page but with media icons — pointers to videodisc clips (yes, videodisc!), audio clips, pictures, etc. — in the margin, complementing the writing. However, we saw a significant number of MediaText documents — like the one on the right — that had no writing, no text, just media icons, just picting!

At a dinner party at ES’s home with friends — one who was a successful stock broker and one who was a successful lawyer — ES proudly showed off the commercial version of MediaText, and especially the document on the right — pointing out how clever the young person was to create a story using only images. (Sound familiar?)  

But the stock broker and the lawyer were horrified! They said: "Elliot, you are harming those children, you are doing those children a disservice! Writing is how we make a living; pictures are for fun, not for real work." ES harming children? OMG, OMG, OMG! Needless to say, ES has never forgotten that dinner party!

Bottom line: No question about it: picting is the new literacy. For better — for worse: "It is what it is." When will the U.S. Congress express laws in images? When will venture capitalists express business plans in pictures? More immediately: What is K–12 going to do? In your opinion, what should K–12 do about picting? Please, add your comments — in writing <smilely face goes here> — below.