The End of Thumbnails and the Future of the Web

Alan Taylor is bringing his "Big Picture" photo aesthetic to The Atlantic's new photoblog just as Gawker redesigns to accommodate larger images. Is the future of the web high-res photography?

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In 2008, Alan Taylor, a web developer for The Boston Globe, started a photoblog for the paper's site, "The Big Picture." The blog, which mostly culled images from services like AP and Getty, soon grew wildly popular--today it grabs 8 million page views a month--and went on to win two Webby Awards and a SXSW nomination for best blog. That caught the attention of editors at the website for venerable, 154-year-old The Atlantic, which has hired Taylor to come aboard to start a new blog there, "In Focus," officially launching in February.

Photography is no stranger to the web, of course, but if "The Big Picture" is any indication, the future of the web may be much more photographic. Nick Denton's network of Gawker blogs are currently beta-testing a new layout that emphasizes giant, high-res pictures. The web needs to move in the direction of TV, Denton told All Things Digital recently, "with full-screen imagery and other content interrupted with full-screen ads." The work of Alan Taylor, then, may be a bellwether indicating the direction the web is heading.

"I've been a web developer for 15 years now," Taylor tells Fast Company. "The original rule of thumb was, 'Oh, you have an image on the web? Well it's got to be small, because there's not much bandwidth. Somehow video seemed to leapfrog that, but no one seemed to catch up and say, 'Wait, we can make picture big, too.' Photography seemed to lag behind."

Taylor is not trained as a photographer, or as a photo editor. As he says, he was a web developer, and came on board with the Globe in 2005 to work on a classified ads website. But he was active on a file-sharing site with some friends, and used to share groups of thematic images that were a hit. Finally, one of them said, "You idiot, you work for a newspaper. Go see if you can do this for the rest of the world." He made a mock-up of a site, pitched some editors, and changed the course of his career.

Is a more photographic web necessarily a good thing? Do we want to follow Nick Denton and Alan Taylor on the road to the TV-ification of the web? Taylor, for his part, disputes that that's what he's doing. "I don't really quite agree with the premise that the web should become more like TV. I think it does what it was meant to do, which is multimedia." Ultimately, everything Taylor does is in service of the story, he says; The Atlantic's site emphasizes that Taylor will bring the "power and beauty of visual storytelling to...our all-star roster of writers." So it's not that pictures will edge out words on the web, says Taylor, so much as that things will move toward a natural equilibrium. All the same, he says, "human nature being what it is, you can't force someone to read."

And who pays for it all? Full-screen photos make banner ads difficult; but interrupting ads, well, they interrupt. "Everyone's still trying to figure that out," says Taylor. "If you take up most of the screen with an image, where do you put the traditional ad? I don't have a left column or right column. If you're gonna have advertisers, you want them to feel comfortable, not that they're getting a leftover spot."

In the constant balancing act between pleasing advertisers and audience, Taylor says "my personal opinion is a photoblog is more conducive to something like sponsorship than a display ad"--this site brought to you by so-and-so.

Keep an eye on "In Focus" and the other photo-rich sites sprouting up. (For the record, our picture-happy site, Co.Design, has been doing this for a while now--and with bigger images than most others!) And get ready to say goodbye to the thumbnails, the insets, and the more modest, low-res sorts of photography currently populating the web. Taylor has allowed us to glimpse the future, and it's got way more pixels.

[Image: Flickr user evilerin]

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