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Can We Trust Infographics?

apples & oranges & kittens in boxes

I love infographics as much as the next guy. Maybe even more than the next guy, because I’m a fairly geeky girl. But I’m growing frustrated with them, and here’s why.

They are ostensibly designed to package info in memorable, digestible, eye-candy nuggets. They do the packaging stuff well. Yummy, yummy, well-designed eye candy. They are easy for mom bloggers to Pin, embed or share.

But you can’t trust the info part whole cloth, not anymore than you would trust other packaged data. In fact, their attractiveness sometimes distracts viewers from factual or logical problems, either by intent of mis-focus, and so infographic data deserves extra scrutiny.

Take this One Nation Under Video infographic about video usage published by Wistia. It was posted on Mashable today, without much accompanying analysis. Very pretty, very interesting topic. It’s grounded in very reputable stats from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, so that’s great.

One nation under video
Infographic by: Wistia

The first section shows us that 71% of people watch videos online, up from 66% a year ago. I’m personally proud of that uptick because I know I’m doing my part in watching. (Hurray gorgeous Listen to Your Mother Show performances! Hurray Anderson Cooper Giggling, you help me make it through the day!)

So the first part of the graphic is all fine and good.

But things get sticky when we look at the last part of the graphic “Online Video Watching Outranks Other Online Activity.” That section is designed to give viewers a memorable downward slope, with video watching seriously outpacing the other activities in the chart. The visual takeaway is meant to be that video is the leader in online activities.

The graph says 69% of respondents watch videos (which is a different figure than used in the first section, but close enough.) And then it shows a handful of lesser-ranked pursuits.

But this graph makes two slightly misleading choices. First, it only ranks activities that are less popular than video watching. Pew says that emailing and search are still the most popular online activities, but these things aren’t included on the video graph. The designers made videos the leading online activity, even though it isn’t.

Also, to make their point about the popularity of video, designers didn’t compare video-watching to other similar passive online pursuits. They selected active, engaged and content-creating activities to compare with passive video watching.

Instead of comparing YouTube watching to reading blogs, they compare it to creating or posting on a blog.

Similarly, they use “Upload Photos” instead of a more passive looking at photos; “Paying for Digital Music” instead of simply listening. The verbs tell the story more than anything.

Um, yeah, passive activity will beat active activity all day long. All night long, too. Just ask my teenagers.

This doesn’t mean that the infographic is wrong. Video is rocking the word. It also doesn’t mean infographics are worse than articles, as similar confusing comparisons are offered in text all the time as well. But there is something about nice at-a-glance graphics that make us think we’ve grokked a concept, whereas we should actually take extra caution when quickly surveying easy to digest nuggets. Logical mistakes don’t jump out as us as quickly they do in words alone.

Just as with any fast-food, instead of relying on a diet of only info nuggets, we might want to slow down for real food more often than not.

But don’t let that stop you from doing your fair share of Internet video watching. The cats of the Internet are counting on you. Covered it with what? Double rainbow all the way!

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