The Culture of Now – The rise of imagery in social media

Girls taking Selfie on Beach smallThe growth of social media sites with a focus on imagery rather than text, together with the rise in micro-video sharing, has resulted in a noticeable shift in the makeup of social media in 2013. A few years ago, people may have wondered whether Twitter’s 140 characters could allow us to truly express ourselves. Now, however, it seems that a few frames of video footage or an image uploaded in a matter of seconds is plenty. This new trend, embraced by millions of social media users, is a direct result of the continued synergy between social media and the smartphone. The increased sophistication of the smartphone and the rise in the normality of social media use means that we now use smartphones as a transmitter of our every mood and emotion. The result is that we are now becoming participants in a new form of communication. As spontaneity has been encouraged, a culture of now has emerged as we learn to consume and share a flurry of information and imagery with a seemingly unquenchable thirst.

The most successful photo sharing social media site, Instagram, celebrated its third birthday last month. Since October 2010 the site has changed the way that people think about social media. Instagram arguably emerged at the perfect time; taking advantage of the increased proliferation of smartphones, as well as the improved quality of photos that can be taken on them. People have been attracted to the retro filters transforming their smartphone photos, but perhaps equally important is the speed with which the user can go from taking a photo, applying filters and then uploading it. There’s no doubt that the site would not be as popular if it took users longer than a few seconds to upload their photos. This concept of immediacy fits perfectly with other sites that users can share their photos with, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Earlier this year, Instagram introduced a function allowing users to share short (3-15 second) videos, hot on the heels of Twitter’s Vine inviting users to upload 6 second videos. Both of these sites have clearly tapped into the success of Twitter’s 140 character tweets, and sought to replicate this short, snappy concept, but with visuals. Now people can advertise their moods and emotions without the need to express them in words. Whether this is a pointer to the long term future of social media is up for debate, but for social media users on smartphones, perhaps images and videos are easier to digest on the move than sites heavier with text. This trend of sharing and communicating via imagery has come to be defined by the rise in popularity of the ‘selfie’ photograph.

It seems likely that social media sites based around instant imagery such as Instagram, Vine, Snapchat and Path will succeed as long as users continue to value the spontaneity and immediacy of sharing images and videos with friends. Snapchat in particular has taken the concept of immediacy to the extreme, with messages and images disappearing after a few seconds (which also eliminates the possibility of spontaneous posts later being regretted). We know from our Ipsos MediaCT Tech Tracker that 55% of the UK adult population now own a smartphone, and that 27% are now accessing social media sites from the device. These figures are sure to increase into 2014, particularly as so many social networks are now built around the concept of a few swipes of a smartphone screen enabling users to complete the journey from taking a photo to sharing it online. Images can be very powerful, and with Instagram taking the decision to allow advertising on the site in order to increase revenues, it will be interesting to see how brands interact with consumers on the site in the coming months. For now, it is clear that some social sites are successfully playing to the strengths of the smartphone, offering the ‘now’ generation a visual social experience that is truly ‘in the moment’.

Tom Cross is  Research Manager at Ipsos  MediaCT.