Talk in pictures

First published in Madhuri Sen’s column in Gulf News


The rise of social networking means we’re all communicating in pictures now. Is it time for kindergarten photography classes?

In an era in which digital social networking has taken over how we connect, collaborate, communicate and consume, the cliché that a picture speaks a thousand words assumes heightened significance.

It’s a well-established fact that audience comprehension is based only 10 per cent on words, 30 per cent on tone of voice and 60 per cent on body language including choice of clothes, space, gestures, expressions, posture and other non-verbal cues. Much of this is lost when one communicates only with the written word. Logical, then, that how one uses pictures and videos when digitally social networking is crucial.

A photograph with a pithy caption may be far more powerful and attention-grabbing than a lengthy note on a blog; an infographic would get viral quicker than a report about the same data. Photos that work best would need to have attention-grabbing capability; the usual distinguishing points being humour, controversy, unusual angles… or even just strong captions that provide a fresh perspective to a regular picture.

Social networking

Facebook reflects that basic rule by constant innovations in how one may view, post or share pictures. Independent apps and sites such as photofresh, twitpic, twitgoo etc. focus on making the social networking picture sharing experience even smoother.

In its last revamp in 2010, Twitter made it easier to view photos and videos; in a move to improve how users embed audiovisual content. It also expanded its online partnerships to the likes of Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, DeviantART, Twitgoo, Plixi, Kickstarter and many more. Even professional networking platforms such as LinkedIn recognise the significance of the audiovisual experience by features such as its photo zoom tool for profile pictures as well as by allowing image and video inclusions directly into the newsfeed.

Changing tools

Mobile phone cameras are the popular input device of choice, being low-cost with fairly good editing capabilities and the ability to connect directly to social networking sites. So are webcams, which are used not just to recreate the in-person communication experience but also to create videos.

With the generation now starting to enter young adulthood having grown up on shortened spellings, crunching their thoughts into 140 characters and highlighting them with hashtags, with leisure reading habits restricted to captions — would one see digital SLRs include the capability to directly post photographs online? Or maybe mobile phones will soon be upgraded so that image output quality equals high-end photographic equipment?

Skill lessons

Whichever way technology evolves to meet this demand, the other obvious conclusion may be that in addition to learning to communicate effectively in words (much of what our current educational systems are focused on), the ability to say it in pictures as well would be an essential skill for future generations to acquire to effectively communicate in not just personal but also professional situations. Education in this area would necessarily need to follow — of course only at the time that educators realise the need for this realignment. Is it time then to start getting ready for a future that has kindergarten-level photography and graphic art classes; even as the current crop, self-taught by trial and error, lead the way?