Digital naysayers blame the Internet for the deterioration of human communication.
The long handwritten cards of days past turned into poorly punctuated text messages. In-depth reporting became attention-grabbing headlines. Public discourse went from full-length letters to the editor to trash talking in the comments section and meaningless retweets.
Complicated ideas, it seems, don’t stand a chance in a world of instant messages, texts, status updates, and tweets.
In some ways, it’s hard to argue: It would have been hard for the Founding Fathers to publish the Federalist Papers on Tumblr (the comments would be overridden with “tl;dr”). Elizabeth Cady Stanton wouldn’t have been able to tweet the Declaration of Sentiments (even with a #SenecaFalls48 hashtag). And Martin Luther couldn’t have posted his 95 Theses on someone’s Facebook wall. (No thumbnail photo? Not interested!)
It seems like we’re on a slippery slope toward a culture devoid of context—a world in which narrative storytelling is dead.
But I see a different trend. In fact, I think our generation is embracing storytelling—we’re just doing it visually.
Image-based technology is on the rise. Instagram is on track to reach 100 million users by fall of this year. Despite being invitation-only until recently, Pinterest is the 16th most popular website in the country. Rumors flew last week that Apple was looking to acquire The Fancy.
In a world where we only have 140 characters to tell our stories, a picture is worth 1,000 tweets.
Photos can be powerful mediums for information. They reveal details, they set context, they tell stories. “Whenever I take a photo, there’s a reason,” explains photographer Ike Edeani. “I have a story to tell. But I don’t have to explain everything in a caption. The photo speaks for itself.” (Follow @ikedeani on Instagram. You will not be disappointed.)
Photos also provide a richer storytelling environment to keep up with your network. In many cases, you can learn more by flipping through a feed of photos than you can from reading a blog or email. The makers of Path, a photo-rich journaling app, captured this best in their product launch video, “Nervous at Home.”
Of course, sharing photos isn’t new—Flickr and Facebook have been high-traffic photo platforms for years. But the way we use photos is changing. Dumping a 700-photo album of your recent trip to Florida didn’t exactly encourage the art of crafting a story. The new breed of photo-heavy applications like Instagram and Pinterest, on the other hand, put a premium on curation. By choosing only a few deliberately selected shots, you can tell a better story—one that others are more likely to follow.
If subtleties and details are obscured by reductionist headlines and abbreviated tweets, a well-crafted photo can reveal the bigger picture. In the cheeky opener to the live performance of his radio show, This American Life, host Ira Glass said it best: “Sometimes it is just a lot easier to see things. It clears a lot up.”
As we continue to reduce messages into fewer and fewer words, it’s easy for brevity to overpower nuanced communication. But the enthusiasm with which photos have become our preferred method of communication bodes well for the revival of storytelling.
So, the next time someone rolls their eyes at Instagram or wrings their hands about Pinterest, be sure to tell them that it’s not such a bad sign that we live in a photo-obsessed culture. Or better yet, take a photo and show them.
Photo courtesy of Ari Helminein.
Anneke is a founding executive and leads the business side of Reserve, one of Fast Company's Most Innovative companies of 2016. She joined Reserve from the Google Creative Lab where she led teams building the future of tech. An advisor to NPR and a startup veteran, she is an experienced entrepreneur and storyteller who speaks and writes on topics related to technology and culture. She lives in Brooklyn and can be found online at @annekejong.More from this Author