We are witnessing the birth of a new universal language. One that is worth billions of dollars.
A language defined by the act of sharing images that define the fleeting, the profound and the trivial. This is a global language governed by the need to feel connected and the desire for expression. This is the language of photography on the social web.
Today anyone can publish a photo, but not every photo is interesting. Never has the policy of I will be interested if you are interesting mattered more. If photography is the de facto language of the social web does that mean we are all fluent? Or are we less thoughtful in our expression? Has technology impoverished the poetry of this new visual language? Or are we getting visually dumber as a result?
Language in its purest form is a technology. A complex set of sounds, signs and meaning with over 7,000 variations. Today technology is ipso facto language. Photography until relatively recently was for the privileged few to play with. With 2 billion people now armed with a smartphone, hooked into their social network and looking to play the citizen journalist the democratic future of what you shoot is what you say has arrived. The written status update has been bypassed by a 24 hour curated visual exhibition called our life in pictures.
The development of languages take centuries to form. But if quantities are an indicator of fluency then we are trying our best to learn. The father of photojournalism, Henri Cartier Bresson, said 'your first 10,000 photos are your worst'. It is estimated that 4bn analogue photos have been taken since the camera was invented in the 1840's. This is dwarfed by the 380bn digital photos taken every year and published across the web. But how many are any good? Cartier Bresson would wait for days to get the shot he wanted, almost never altering its original form and revelling in the beauty of the decisive moment.
The posterboy for this new language is Instagram. As one of their early 30m users my love affair with Instagram continues. I think its a genius of simplicity and user experience. But the threshold of content quality is rapidly disappearing. Too many people are using it to log their life rather than showcase their life. Instagram's vision is 'share your life on the go'. But if photos are signifiers of personal importance and relevance then the 'inner editor' of some users are failing.
I have a friend who is a social media native and a creative professional, but his photos are, erm, a bit rubbish. I reckon his Cartier Bresson hit rate would be 1 out of 100 shots meeting an expectation of 'wow, that is a remarkable image'. Is it snooty to demand a better quality from my network? Is my friend learning this new visual language and mispronouncing key words? Is his visual grammar in need of a refresh to help 'explain' what he means by posting trivial photos of bus seats and bins? Or should I just get over it and join his celebration of mundanity?
We are all increasingly becoming editors of our own lives. Choosing what to share and what creative genres to use has become a crippling act of visual communication. Have image filters and camera apps become a post modern masking operation to pimp your life? The choice of certain types of filters represents a level of branding about you and how you want to curate your life. Editorial decisions about how to crop, compose, edit and storify your message is now a daily ritual of epic proportions. When should I use the bokeh filter becomes the ritualised equivalent of practicing your handwriting in public.How interesting do I really need to be cries your inner editor. This new language is born on the couches of Freud and Wood Allen where social network behaviours drive your egosystem everyday.
What would Roland Barthes make of Instagram?I wonder what he would make of the daily digest of bourgeois cultural mythmaking being played out every second. His explanation of how signifiers get rewarded by Likes would be fascinating to hear. I suspect he would defer to his thesis that photography represents implied meanings and infers an almost 'naturalistic truth'. He contended that a picture creates a certain sense of falseness in the illusion of 'what is', where 'what was' is closer to the truth. With retro filters, captioning, 360 panoramas, face altering apps, retouching on the go - the tools for sign making and constructing personal brand narratives are endless.
Barthes argued that the interpretation of literature and photography should not be guided by the authors intention, but rather it is the reader who determines what the 'text means'. He disputed the very idea of the author as a culture maker. In the kaleidoscopic and remixed world of social networks the author is very much alive and well in the 21st century. But it is the audience that validates their efforts turning it into a virtual platform of signification.
Photography on the social web definitely makes the mundane more interesting, sensational and emotive. But can the lyrical words of a status update ever compete with the pimped evidence of a decisive moment - however brief or trivial? The reality of the daily raw feed of social semiotics is making users realise curating ones life is not just taking snapshots but a complex ritual of social behaviours, self expression and cultural myth making.
In the end I agree with Paula Scher that 'you are the mashup of what you let into your life'. That everything is a remix and nothing is completely original. That all languages are quilted together with many voices and multiple meanings. Yet, language in its purest form is our voice. And the way we colour our voices through smartphones and social networks is a very personal decision with very public consequences.
As memes pop and fizz through networks and we move rapidly towards the interest graph photos have become both social currency and language. The interest graph represents a shift to a world where what we are into is visually more interesting, and therefore more meaningful, than who we know or what we know.
In this Barthes-Bresson-esque world of citizen journalism and ambient social media the social web is photography. This new visceral visual language is a great thing, but as social networks get more sophisticated so does its users. Demanding a better signal to noise frequency is not arrogant, its natural evolution. Its a matter of editorial taste and understanding that less is indeed more.
Inevitably, Facebook will be the master purveyor of this global visual language. So lets hope its users bear witness and choose to seek their own decisive moments with a fluent and free voice.
Here's to learning new languages and the march of authors autographing altars everywhere.
(Photo credit: me)