Visual Culture: Storytelling in 2019
6 min read
Earlier this year, I travelled to the Aran Islands.
No big deal I hear you say. And you’re right. But along with inspiring my wanderlust (and day-dreams of retiring to an idyllic Western outpost), it prompted me to think about today’s visual culture.
As a long-term magazine fan, I’ve lusted after beautiful imagery for years. While I aim to switch off my social media feeds on recent travels, I still find myself contemplating the perfect angle for a snap-shot or the ideal filter to bring out nature’s already gorgeous hues. We’ve all heard the phrase — a picture is worth a thousand words — and in today’s image-saturated environment, it certainly rings true.
For along with feeding social media platforms across the globe, images have become an instant means of communicating (no more evident than in the very topical 10-year-challenge earlier this year.) And one that instantly delivers a message. After all, our brains are designed to process images 60,000 times faster than text.
Consider Instagram. A primarily visual platform — now complete with vertical video (IGTV) and first-person video content (Stories) — its popularity as a platform for visual storytelling has soared.
Head on a slick holiday? Better get that Instagram post up. Try a tough new workout? INSTAGRAM IT. You get the idea. And while we may all be hunting for validation, perhaps there’s something more going on. As an ever-evolving platform, constantly updated with images of user’s lives and daily experiences, image-driven social media has become a tangible and agile chronicle of our times.
And its popularity looks set to continue to grow. In her recent annual overview of internet trends, Mary Meeker dedicated a section to the increasing importance of imagery across social platforms, estimating that over 50% of Twitter impressions now come from tweets that include a form of visual media. While across Instagram, the growth and use of images to share stories and document daily life across the globe has increased exponentially since the sharing of individual imagery in 2011.
Consider this — the growth of meme culture.
Originally coined by Richard Dawkins, meme derives from Greek (from an original meaning ‘that which is imitated’) and has become part of our daily lexicon. Defined as ‘an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations’ by the Oxford dictionary, many social media users today are connoisseurs of creating, sharing and interacting with memes.
And by doing so, we’re crafting a new way of communicating. Much like the image-driven means of storytelling used by politicians and power-brokers before widespread literacy, images today tell the story of the world we live in, and the topics and people who impact that world.
Have a problem and you want a pithy way of telling others? A meme of a baby with a raised eyebrow will concisely and immediately showcase your point of view. Feel aggrieved by Brexit? Or perhaps American politics has you seeing red?
Or perhaps the arrival of the summer season has hit you hard, with its threat of virtuous living and energetic gym routines. There are, you guessed it, also MANY memes to express that particular sense of ennui.
In fact, thanks to the constant stream of content, there are memes and images for all of our fleeting moods and emotion.
So much so that collating and analysing this vast global library of visual content is now a full-time job in parts of the world.
And while this is an important movement, it’s also worth noting that we shouldn’t only rely on images to share our thoughts and tell our best stories.
After all, oral storytelling existed in a world before literacy – before ordinary regular people were empowered with the ability to share their own story, challenge authority and conduct business in the written literate public world.
While images instantly convey a message, it’s crucial that we don’t forget about the importance of considering nuance and context when communicating — rather than relying solely on a one-note image to share and dispense information.
Instead, as we move forward, with the increasing power and agility of technology at our fingertips, it would serve us better to accompany our canon of imagery with other forms of communication — from voice technology, using skills to dispense knowledge, to immersive audio in the form of podcasts and digital radio – and by doing so, document our thoughts and daily life in all its unfiltered glory.