Digital is the New Normal; Visual is the New Text

Deep Social

The most prevalent conversation at November’s Web Summit focused on the next phase of Social Media.  In all accounts and tellings,  it appears that we are moving away from the useless pursuit of more likes and followers towards smaller private networks. This, it is envisaged, will allow for a tightening of algorithms, an increase in Adblocking, and a filtering out of an enormous amount of bad advertising as we retreat to our private networks.  In doing so, we move away from Baudrillard‘s exaltation of images, to narrowing our view and exalting only those images we have pre-specified. With Adblocking  it is now possible to protect ourselves from the “tyranny of the image”, the visual equivalent of Philip K Dick’s papula, at least in the realm of online advertising.

The algorithms and filters will be so tightened that one will see less and less irrelevant advertising until we are looking at only the content we believe to be relevant to us, a move from a marketing mindset to a publisher mindest. The realisation that we are overwhelmed by too much data seems to have finally struck home and the retreat into smaller more private networks will allow for more relevant connections in the realm of what has come to be referred to as Deep Social.  By specifying content, it will be more possible for advertisers to excite and reach people with exactly the type of brands and images in which they are interested. The precision that this affords creates a new form of branding demographics – so that rather than looking broadly at the 25- 40 year old group, one may target a group that is interested in specific products, for example, those who profess an interest in hockey and literature, or perhaps cooking and skiing. Such a group would be tracked and targeted across all age ranges. As viewers, we are becoming more empowered to choose exactly on what we direct our gaze. This new level of sophistication is predicted to extend beyond the realm of advertising,  empowering viewers to shape and hone their exposure to images across all instances of visual content.

An Immense Phantom Concourse.

Visual communication was the earliest medium of expression with paintings on cave walls and hieroglyphics ranking among the first expressions. As time progressed, communication became more text driven,  Drucker identifies the “Judeo-Christian traditions that cast a pejorative judgment on all sensual aspects of experience” as one of the reasons for the dominance of text in more recent centuries.  Perhaps now is again the time for the ascendance of the visual. It certainly seems a possibility when considering the dominance of images over text on digital media.   In a community of  400 Million, 80 million photos per day are posted to Instagram, a Google search of mainstream newspapers such as  The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian indicates the extent to which photography is now leading journalism. Today it seems that instead of the journalists searching for images to accompany a story, it is the visuals themselves that drive the narrative.

Outside the realm of professional journalism, the rise of citizen journalism and the participatory nature of new media results in newsfeeds populated by users youtube videos. User generated content ranks high across many platforms, the general public’s digital photos are often posted as central components of reporting however unchecked for bias and truth they may transpire to be. Add to this the sensationalist clickbait images now prevalent in the social media feeds of many newspapers, and it becomes obvious that we are moving increasingly further away from the nuance or context provided by text.

Another trend away from traditional photography in both digital news reporting and in advertising is the use of gifs. These animated images are appearing more and more frequently, sequencing the narrative  in visual format. Where gifs are not used, we can still witness the use of sequential photos.  Increasingly stories and adverts are appearing with more than one photo in order to develop the narrative visually. This demands that we learn a new language, understanding and interpreting a narrative through imaging sequencing. It seems very probable that the visual is indeed in the ascendant, but what are the dangers of allowing it to replace text?

It is our instinct to believe that images and photographs are describing the world realistically. Without contextualising the image with text or with the addition of an accurate and descriptive caption, the viewer can be easily misled.  Add to this the growth of digital manipulation and the doctoring of images and there lies the potential for serious misuse.

Death in the Browser Tab.

9C2A173A-8C04-4834-A84F-87890E001D59.png“Falling Soldier,” from the Spanish Civil War  Credit Robert Capa/Magnum Photo, the veracity of this image is now contested.

As we look back over visual communication in the last century we realise that image manipulation also took place in the days before Photoshop.  One example is ‘Falling Soldier’ Robert Capra’s celebrated photo from the Spanish Civil War, which has  been dismissed as a fake.  “Art is always manipulation, from the moment you point a camera in one direction and not another,” Ángeles González-Sinde, Spanish cultural minister has commented on visiting the Robert Capra exposition last month.

While photographic images of death like those from the Spanish Civil War have been in the public domain in the last century, these are now easily accessed online, even mainstream news stations provide links to the police shootings of citizens and describe terrorist videos of beheadings, with barely a trigger warning.
In response to this proliferation, I particularly value the musings of  Teju Cole.   One of my favourite authors, he is also an incredibly talented photographer and essayist, he is a true Renaissance Man. Cole also writes as photography critic for the New York Times. It was here I read his newspaper piece  Death in the Browser Tab.   I returned to this piece on reading of the of the release of the dash-cam footage of Laquan McDonald’s death (I have chosen not to provide a link to the footage.)
Cole writes “A video introduces new elements into the event it records. It can turn a private grief into a public spectacle, set popular opinion at odds with expert analysis.” The power of this medium to communicate death has not been fully weighed up, in part because it is still in fledgling state.
 “The videographic afterimage of a real event is always peculiar. When the event is a homicide, it can cross over into the uncanny: the sudden, unjust and irrevocable end of the long story of what one person was, whom he loved, all she hoped, all he achieved, all she didn’t, becomes available for viewing and reviewing.”
Cole describes how the peculiarities of such videos the “combination of a passive affect and the subjective gaze, irregular lighting and poor sound, the amateur videographer’s unsteady grip and off-camera swearing.”  is a necessarily incomplete version of the story, because the video or the image mediates the event of death.  We can exit the browser; sometimes images are are too much and also not enough.


Baudrillard Simulcra and Simulation

Philip K Dick


More Adblocking and move from marketing to publishing mindset.

Johanna Drucker

Whitman on photography: An Immense Phantom Concourse

Instagram Blog

Teju Cole