I have never been a big fan of generalizations, because they fail to reflect the true complexities of everyday life. Most of us defy stereotypes. So while I watched a lot of Saturday morning cartoons on TV as a kid, I was also an avid reader. And while I studiously did my homework every night, I also rarely missed an opportunity to play hours of street hockey with my friends in the neighborhood.
A recent column in Fast Company by social media strategist Ekaterina Walter called “The Rise of Visual Social Media” highlights the growing popularity of visual social media sites, like Pinterest, at the mutual exclusion of text-based media. In her column she offers this comment by a professor who studies social media:
"Blogs were one of the earliest forms of social networking where people were writing 1,000 words," says Dr. William J. Ward, Social Media professor at Syracuse University. "When we moved to status updates on Facebook, our posts became shorter. Then micro-blogs like Twitter came along and shortened our updates to 140 characters. Now we are even skipping words altogether and moving towards more visual communication with social-sharing sites like Pinterest."
Of course, Dr. Ward’s argument ignores the main reason why we write in the first place. Human communications began with visualization. It’s the most fundamental way to share information, especially in primitive societies that relied upon aural communications. That’s why we have pictures of hunters killing wooly mammoths on cave walls.
We have a natural affinity for visual images, because our brains were designed to quickly process visual information. Writing evolved as a way to allow us to explain and share ideas that are not so easy to communicate through pictures. Plato's famous cave allegory can be seen as a repudiation of what we see visually versus the real Truth (with a capital T), which defies easy explanation.
As a broadcast journalist, it was always so much easier for me to tell a story on the radio or write an article in a newspaper than to produce a television broadcast. Why? Because as a visual medium, television always challenged you to find visual ways to explain complex information that resisted visualization, such as public policy. Ironically, the solution often involved using graphics that incorporated text to highlight key points.
Word and pictures convey information, but they should not be treated as mutually exclusive. In fact, they enhance each other’s power to communicate. The rise of visual social media is inevitable, but words will always be somewhere in the picture.
Mike Sockol has been a writer and communications strategist for over 30 years, developing and implementing editorial, PR and marketing communications initiatives for companies and organizations of all sizes. No editorial project is too small or inconsequential, because everyone deserves to be heard. Visit www.msockol.com for more information.