Digital degradation “If you can read this, congratulations—the archive you’re using still knows about the mouseover text”!

It’s been a while, but I’ve been confronted once again with “digital degradation”. Of course, I’m not the first one to notice these things as the above classic XKCD shows.

What exactly happened? Well, about two weeks ago, a family event happened on which pictures were taken. Digital of course, and with actual cameras. So, we know, these pictures were of a certain resolution and quality when they started off. The pictures I made with my Fujifim X-T20 were obviously copied from the SD card and then uploaded to my server, which has a nightly backup.

However, someone else also made pictures with a point and shoot camera. With events like this, you’re happy with every picture you get so you can select the best. Well, my mom was compiling all pictures in Shotwell and told me the USB stick she received with the pictures wouldn’t automatically import. I didn’t know, but if you don’t mimic the DCIM folder structure, the USB stick is just regarded as data, which complicated things for my mom.

So, she asks me to check it out and I immediately see something I don’t like: All filenames have the word “WhatsApp” in the file name. I look at the resolution and they are indeed all just 1024×768. I presume WhatsApp (just like Facebook and many other platforms) modified the pictures to make them small and reduce data usage.

My mom already looked at the pictures and had noticed nothing. Of course not, a 1024×768 picture looks just fine on a 1920×1080 screen, and I’m pretty sure the person who saved them from WhatsApp, also didn’t notice: After all it looks just fine on most cellphones.

Now, I told mom that these pictures were next to useless and showed her why, by example. My mom really “gets” these things quite easily.

Stand back a bit of how this happened: Someone made pictures with a decent point and shoot. They, somehow, copied these pictures to their cellphone (probably over Google Photos – which already adds data loss), then sent it over WhatsApp to someone else, who saved it from their cellphone to a PC to copy it on a USB stick to give it to my mom. Resulting in an extreme data degradation, to the point the pictures are -at best- useful to be looked at on a computer screen.
All of this, while the users did not notice anything because we tend to use relatively low-resolution computer screens…

It all boils down to the fact that users know how to transfer data, but they don’t think a second about how this data is modified in transit. They don’t even realize it’s modified.

I have no real solution. Personally, I would say that education is the only way and we need to tell people to check the data during transit. I would say that, at a bare minimum, everyone should know about resolution and lossy vs lossless compression. I know, from other scenarios at work, that is even too much to ask for. This is just going to get worse. As a matter of fact, if you don’t want to lose pictures, make a physical copy.