Between February 2002 and April 2006, the Sydney Morning Herald online [www.smh.com.au], an influential Australian newspaper which went online in 1995, showed a remarkable degree of change in the design of its home page. However, over the same time period, the use of images in hard-news stories on its home page was remarkably consistent, both diachronically and synchronically. These hard-news images are small `thumbnails', and are most typically close crops of faces. Their small size, their consistent and limited subject matter, and their positioning in news stories represent a new practice in hard-news reporting, and raise questions about the role they play in the multimodal story-telling practices of the newspaper, and about the discursive practices of online newspapers more generally. This article presents an analysis of these thumbnails using tools from systemic functional semiotics, and an investigation from three socio-historical perspectives (news photography, typography, and punctuation). On this basis, I argue that in the specific discursive context of the home page of the Sydney Morning Herald online during the time period studied, thumbnails function less as images and more as an expression of the expanding system of language in computer-mediated communication.