Seeing the Need for Infographic Literacy

The twilight saga of the Encyclopædia Britannica print edition [Literacy 2.0, 3/14/2012] has cast the spotlight on Wikipedia. Many commentators point to Wikipedia as the killer app of online reference, and no doubt about it, Wikipedia is a Literacy 2.0 phenomenon. But is it up to the task of reference kingship?

There are those who still distrust it. Of course, there are people who aren’t too sure about airplanes either. How can a knowledge base be created by a mob? Where is the academic rigor and oversight? The reasoning goes like this, “Well, if I can create an account and submit an entry it must be untrustworthy.” Critics have questioned the “systemic bias” and inconsistencies in approach and presentation–maybe a little too much pop culture and not enough pre-cultural history.

I look at it this way: Out of 26 billion pages what are the chances that the information I’m seeking is going to be bogus?

The biggest problem with digital literacy, of course, is the unwillingness or inability to question an “authoritative” source. While it’s true that the now-online-only Encyclopædia Britannica, along with other scholarly reference tomes, can be trusted to be more factual than, say, the guy who runs the convenience store at the gas station, a truly literate individual never assumes that what they are reading is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Doubt, questioning and cross-checking are basic literacy skills. Go ahead and check that, it’s true.

In the Digital World those skills take on new importance. They move to the head of the class, as it were. In the online environment, “Don’t believe everything you read” becomes “Don’t believe anything you read, see or hear.” It is not enough to take things with a grain of salt. We need a cinder block of salt as we surf for information.

Yet, alas, as with the grand old encyclopedias, people tend to trust what everyone else is using and quoting and plagiarising. Wikipedia, by virtue of its ubiquity and first-on-the-list search hits, has become the go-to resource for casual information seekers, students and even some who pride themselves on their advanced education and discerning intellects.

Which brings us to another fast-growing phenom of the digital literacy era: the infographic.

Communicating information in graphical form used to be relatively costly in relation to simple words and numbers. Before digital graphics the process of visualizing information typically required artistic skill. Reproduction of large color images was a major cost obstacle. Digital tools and digital delivery have eliminated those barriers. Graphics are de rigueur when it comes to online publishing. On the Web, if it’s not visual it’s not visited.

Infographics are a hybrid form of graphical communication that can now be found all over the Web on every conceivable subject. E.g.,, Cool Infographics, Daily Infographic.

And, guess what? Like crowd-sourced general information (e.g., Wikipedia), infographics suffer from the same issues of trust and reliability. How do you know what you are looking at is based on solid facts? And even if it is, how do you know the visual presentation is not misleading or outright deceptive? Sometimes what looks pretty in an image works against comprehension and accuracy.

We have yet another new literacy to acquire–infographic literacy.

Let’s get started right now, and what better topic for an infographic than Wikipedia?

The newly released infographic below is how Jen Rhee sees Wikipedia. Note the inclusion of sources. Notice how key facts that might otherwise blend in with other data in text are given specific emphasis. Notice the use of metaphor, a variety of charting methods and plenty of space and big print.

Are we looking at the new encyclopedia entry, the new essay, the new paragraph? Is this reading in the Digital Age?

Note, too, that all of the source citations are URLs.

Infographic by Jen Rhee. Via:


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