The expression “a picture is worth a thousand words”, was first uttered by Fred Barnard in 1921, a dimly-remembered age when a soda cost a nickel and steam-powered kinetoscopes were a plausible technology.
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that this claim is accurate.
It’s difficult to directly evaluate the picture/word exchange rate, but by the beginning of the Second World War, Heinlein was being paid a penny a word and a 5×7 film plate cost between $2.75 and $4.00. If we posit an average three hundred and thirty words per picture, this represents an inflation-adjusted devaluation of approximately fifty percent.
Curiously, using various comparative metrics the picture-to-word exchange rate was reasonably stable over the course of the next few decades. While first color 35mm film was introduced in 1950, the addition of colour-adjectives did not represent a significant increase in the picture-related word supply, certainly not enough to offset the reduced costs achieved through streamlined manufacturing processes. The well-known volatility of the silver market in the late seventies and early eighties had yet to set in, and though the cost of pictures declined slowly (adjusted for inflation), the relative cost of words declined comparably, lending stability to that market. (Silver nitrate is a critical element of the photographic process, and until recently Eastman Kodak was the world’s largest corporate consumer of silver.)
In the early 80’s the picture-word exchange rate shifted dramatically in what is widely regarded as a “perfect storm” of completely unrelated events – Nelson Hunt’s efforts to corner the silver market and the beginnings of the consolidation of the media by large corporations drove up the cost of silver substantially, while the real value of words dropped dramatically. Pictures were briefly expensive but talk was, more than ever, cheap.
This might be the high-water mark of the picture’s worth in words. Not long after Hunt was bankrupted and convicted for his attempt to corner the silver market, the renormalized price of silver and the introduction of affordable autofocus cameras made photography much more accessible to the wider public. The resulting increase in the picture supply more overcame the imbalances of the still-soft word market, and the per-word value of pictures continued its downward trend.
Fluctuations in the both supply and demand for pictures and words would remain relatively modest for another ten years until a pair of technologies would cause the most significant value-shift to date – namely, the introduction of affordable digital cameras and the explosive growth of the internet. A sudden glut of pictures should have been accompanied by a comparable increase in words, but the low relative quality of those words, the advent of instant messaging and SMS, down-rezzing and idiosyncratic abbreviations made the market difficult to evaluate.
In reality the problem turned out to be one of calibration;with the new irrelevance of the admittedly problematic silver-cost metric and both pictures and words themselves now worth very close to nothing in real terms, how does one correctly evaluate them on a comparative basis? The answer turned out to be simpler than expected: combine the two. In early 2006 the idea that later became known as LOLcats began to take hold, clearly fixing per-image word-value by embedding verbiage in the image itself. Fixed-word values are of course variable, some as low as one and as high as twelve, with very little consistency from one example to the next. Fortunately, over a sufficiently large sample set, it is now possible to directly evaluate the picture/word exchange rate to with a reasonable degree of precision.
So, although it represents a significant devaluation from the 1921 value, in Q3 2007 a picture is on average worth between four and seven words, two of which are misspelled.