Since even before the invention of the printing press, text has been the central way that humans communicate over long distances and across time. Computers only entrenched the primacy of text. The rise of desktop publishing in the 1980s turned all of us into composers of beautiful, printed documents.
Then the internet turned us into distributors of digital words. Suddenly we were all bloggers, emailers, tweeters and authors of Mediums and status updates. We ditched phone calls for written messages. We called these messages what they were: texts, as if we were describing the histories of ancients.
But then came the cellphone camera, and then, a decade ago, the smartphone. For the first time, it became possible for humans to instantly document their visual surroundings and to transmit what we saw with lifelike fidelity.
At first this seemed like a small change: We’d have more pictures of our families. A host of companies, from Facebook to Flickr to Instagram, latched on to this idea.
But Snapchat uncovered something deeper about the camera. Not only could we use pictures to document the world, but we could also use them to communicate. Snapchat, which was at first dismissed as a mere sexting app, showed that with the right design, a phone’s camera could add an extra dimension to communication that you couldn’t get with text alone.
That may be only a start. The growing importance of cameras — of images rather than just text — is altering much about culture. It’s transforming many people’s personal relationships. It’s changing the kind of art and entertainment we produce. You might even credit cameras — or blame them — for our more emotional, and less rational, politics.
Perhaps most consequential, the rising dependence on cameras is changing our language. Other than in face-to-face communication, we used to talk primarily in words. Now, more and more, from GIFs to emoji, selfies to image-macro memes and live video, we talk in pictures.
How does this change culture? In a paper published last year, Oren Soffer, a professor of communications at the Open University of Israel, argued that Snapchat returns us to a time before the printing press, when information was disseminated orally instead of through writing.
Snapchat has two defining features: pictures and ephemerality. When you talk to others on the service, you usually send them a photo, often of your face. The photo lasts for a few seconds before disappearing. Paradoxically, Professor Soffer said, these features make Snapchat much more like talking than writing.
“What Snapchat is attempting is to apply technology to visual products to create a fading-away effect — just as spoken words fade away in the air after utterance,” he wrote.
Snapchat adds other features to deepen this effect. The lenses and filters — ways to make your face look like a dog, for instance — seem juvenile to people who aren’t used to Snapchat. But the moment you pick it up you understand the effect; lenses don’t just add whimsy to your speech, but can perform other functions that approximate face-to-face chatting, too. They can hide your face when you’re not looking your best. They can provide emotional cues: rainbow vomit may mean you’re feeling great, while a black-and-white filter may suggest melancholy.
Yes, Snapchat lets you add text on top of these images, but the pictures are a kind of language by themselves. Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who is writing a book about how the internet is changing language, said Snapchat lenses and filters were a form of what linguists call “phatic communication,” which is communication that is meant to ease social interactions instead of to convey information. (For example, saying “hello” and “you’re welcome.”)
“That’s the purpose of the face filters or the geofilters in Snapchat — they provide a fun way to communicate these same kinds of phatic messages with pictures,” Ms. McCulloch said.
The other purpose the filters serve is to create a shared context for communication. When you talk to people in real life, you often do so while engaged in some other activity — you go out to dinner, you take a walk, you play a board game.
“In digital environments, what you talk about is Snapchat’s filters, or sticker collections, or you talk about an interesting GIF,” Ms. McCulloch said. “They’re a shared object to talk about.”
None of this is to suggest writing is going to go away. On the internet, new forms of communication tend to be additive. We won’t replace text with pictures; we add them together to create something new. What’s more, text is still irreplaceable in lots of forms of communication. I could have tried to tell you this story in the form of an image-based Snapchat story, but it would most likely have been unwieldy and not especially informative. If you want to convey a lot of information concisely and accurately, writing is still one of the best methods to use.
“If you’ve ever looked at Ikea instructions, those don’t have any words in them, and they’re notorious for how frustrating they are to use,” Ms. McCulloch said. “Ikea instructions would be a lot nicer if they came with words. So I don’t think words are going anywhere.”
But even if words won’t be replaced by pictures, the rising prominence of picture-based communications systems could still alter society in big ways. Joe Weisenthal of Bloomberg argued in a short essay last year that the raucous 2016 presidential election stemmed in part from what he called our “post-literate” age. In the ancient era of oral communication, the messages that proved most memorable were short and emotionally resonant. Mr. Weisenthal argued that the clipped, image-heavy syntax of social platforms bore a resemblance to that paradigm.
“Complicated, nuanced thoughts that require context don’t play very well on most social platforms, but a resonant hashtag can have extraordinary influence,” he wrote.
And you know what works even better than a hashtag? A GIF.
No company is enabling and benefiting from the rise of visual communication as thoroughly as Snap. Its strategy doesn’t guarantee its success; there are lots of other companies nibbling on the same megatrend, among them YouTube and Instagram, both of which have huge and growing audiences and deep relationships with advertisers.
Yet alone among social companies, Snap is going all in on the image. And in a world where image is getting to be everything, that’s not a bad bet.