“Social media images form a new language online” – NYT blog Bits

Nick Bilton writes for the NYT blog Bits about a new language that has taken hold in the social media realm.  A picture says a thousand words, apparently.

Bilton writes:

Photos, once slices of a moment in the past — sunsets, meetings with friends, the family vacation — are fast becoming an entirely new type of dialogue. The cutting-edge crowd is learning that communicating with a simple image, be it a picture of what’s for dinner or a street sign that slyly indicates to a friend, “Hey, I’m waiting for you,” is easier than bothering with words, even in a world of hyper-abbreviated Twitter posts and texts.

“This is a watershed time where we are moving away from photography as a way of recording and storing a past moment,” said Robin Kelsey, a professor of photography at Harvard, and we are “turning photography into a communication medium.”

Not surprisingly, the largest social networking companies are spending billions of dollars to be the place where consumers latch onto these visual nods. They know the stakes. While it might seem that Yahoo’s Flickr, Facebook, which also owns Instagram, and Twitter are fighting to become the ultimate online photo album or video vault, these companies are really fighting to provide the service for the newest way to communicate. If they miss that shift, they risk irrelevancy.

Bilton describes a mobile application called Snapchat that allows users to post “communicative” images online that are erased soon afterwards.

He compares these in-the-moment snap shots to Paleolithic Lascaux Cave drawings that have survived for thousands of years.  In my experience, even fleeting images can be haunting.  Bilton continues:

But the art of ancient hunters never had the opportunity to go viral. Evan Spiegel, Snapchat’s co-founder, who built the service two years ago while at Stanford, recently said that Snapchat users sent 200 million images a day, up from 50 million images a day in December.

These images can bridge language barriers, he furthers.  Bilton ends with a quote about this meme style of communicating in the technological age.  He writes:

“We’re tiptoeing into a potentially very deep and interesting new way of communicating,” said Mitchell Stephens, author of “The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word,” and a journalism professor at New York University. “And as with anything, when you tiptoe in, you start in the shallow waters.”

Like celluloid film and kodak cameras, this way of communicating via images may not survive the test of time.  I think these instant images are useful to us in the present.  Due to their viral nature, they may well represent a snap shot of the collective conscious at any given time.  What’s next, telepathic communication?


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