Are Pictures Becoming the New Words?

July 15, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Digital Literacy

You’ve likely heard of apps such as Vine, Snapchat, and Instagram. We’ve written about them plenty here on the blog. These image and video sharing apps are rising swiftly in popularity—and some experts think it’s no accident.

In April of 2012, Facebook acquired Instagram. Since then the app has tripled its user base, according to Fast Company, hitting 100 million users earlier this year. The app also expanded its capabilities to include short video sharing just a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, last October, Twitter purchased Vine, another app enabling users to share short video clips that are pieced together, before the startup had officially launched. See a trend? Experts have been predicting what Harvard photography professor Robin Kelsey recently described as a “watershed moment,” where images are no longer just a slice of time, but rather a medium for communication and potentially a new literacy altogether.

“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,” wrote Kelsey.

Mitchell Stephens, journalism professor at New York University, has been exploring this shift for years. In 1998, he penned “The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word.” The power of the visual, he and others have argued, is its immediacy for the viewer. The written word is once removed in a way that images are not.

“Children will learn to write with video just as they learn to draw or use the Internet,” said Eastern Michigan University rhetorician Nancy Allen. “Our postmodern world no longer sees the world in straight, regular shapes. Moving images may offer us a way of communicating that can more accurately reflect our world,” she continued.

Stephens took the idea one step farther, arguing that there might someday be an actual visual language. Allen said that’s beside the point. “Whether or not we use moving images to write, the greater emphasis on images, already occurring, will involve us in learning new skills of interpretation and in teaching new skills required to think and communicate more visually."