Sparklines, Animated GIFs, iOS Devices

A sparkline is a small intense, simple, word-sized graphic with typographic resolution. Sparklines mean that graphics are no longer cartoonish special occasions with captions and boxes, but rather sparkline graphic can be everywhere a word or number can be: embedded in a sentence, table, headline, map, spreadsheet, graphic.

This famous quote is from Edward Tufte, who proposed sparklines as a way of representing quantitative information in text. Sparklines were supposed to change the way we write about data. No longer do we need to write cumbersome sentences or make oversized charts to convey quantitative information. A sparkline would be worth a thousand words.

The reality turned out a bit differently than what Tufte envisioned. Sure enough, you can spot some sparklines in the wild — especially on financial pages. Even Excel now supports sparklines, in addition to a number of other implementations. Still, sparklines are by no means thriving. They can hardly be found on the sports pages, a natural habitat. For the most part, they remain obscure creatures that are known only to design nerds. Perhaps tellingly, when I searched for real world uses of sparkline, Google’s first page of results included two hits for sparkling wine.

In contrast, animated GIFs have thrived in the web journalism context. As Andrew Phelps of Nieman Labs puts it, “When video says too much and a still image too little, the animated GIF can be the perfect container for the agony and ecstasy of sport.” In a way, animated GIFs have turned out to sparklines’ non-nerdy cousin: a way to encapsulate information that cannot be succinctly or forcefully conveyed via text. In many contexts, an animated GIF is worth a thousand words.

But there is a huge problem for the animated GIF: mobile. On my iPhone and iPad , animated GIFs function truly awfully. All the same reasons that made people hate animated GIFs on 1990s Geocities pages are back on iOS devices: animated GIFs load slowly, play jerkily, and sometimes even pause weirdly. Whenever they’re around, there is no ecstasy but only agony. (I assume that mobile performance is one reason that Dr. Drang converted an animated GIF of an at-bat to H.264 video.) In the near-future when we often read things on the go, it looks like animated GIFs are doomed to the same fate as sparklines.

Maybe this won’t be the case. I don’t know if the limitation here is hardware or software. So I don’t know if the new new iPad (4th gen), with its A6X chip, would play back animated GIFs much more smoothly. I also don’t know how animated GIFs play on Android or Windows mobile platforms. So, maybe someone can let me know about these things. I do hope that some solution is found, though. Otherwise, I will never be able to enjoy FanGraphs‘s wonderful statistical analyses with some illustrated animated GIFs when I’m on the go. And that, as far as first world problems go, is a pretty suboptimal outcome.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

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