Words still matter

writing by Pedro Ribeiro SimeosIt all started with those innocent little smileys that we began adding to our first text messages to convey a feeling. Then came Facebook, and we changed lengthy blogs for shorter status updates – and before long, those updates turned into photos. Then came Instagram, Pinterest, Vine, Snapchat and whatnot.

Today, a photo gets twice as many likes on Facebook as a written update. Tumblr’s most popular form of media, by 42%, is an image and Instagram was the fastest growing social platform last year. We are blessed with such a selection of emojis on our smartphones that one can easily communicate how-embarrassed-they-are-about-the-gift-cactus-they-received-from-their-grandma-as-a-birthday-present-but-that-they-still-love-her-very-much – without typing a single word. Grumpy Cat, which (who?) grew from a silly meme into an ultimate visual representation of modern human discontent, made it to the cover of New Yorker last year.

Is anyone writing anymore?

The rise of the visual in social media is not news, nor is it surprising given the reign of smartphones, which have enabled even the most visually clumsy of us to become photographers. And crucially, they have made our lives so fast we only have time to glance at and perhaps, quickly, ‘like’ things.

The disturbing part is that this major cultural shift seems to have happened without any questioning. We are happily blinded by the latest Pinterest statistics and cheer for every lousy filtered photo. No one has really thought what the demise of the written word actually means. A hint: there’s a lot more at stake here than just tedious grammar, especially for advertising.

Is it simply speed and efficiency that drive us to talking with pictures, or also pure laziness and disinterest? Yes, statistically a photo on Facebook gets twice as many likes as a written update, but to automatically consider those likes as true engagement is still disappointingly common in our industry. Yes, 90% of the information going into our brain is visual, and it goes through the cells 60k times faster than words. But does it stay or truly inspire?

The act of glancing and liking a brand’s photo in the midst of all the blurry selfies, sunrises in Goa and goat’s cheese salads in Hackney pop-up restaurants takes less than two seconds. Imagine if you could make someone stop scrolling for a minute and actually read a story?

Sadly, or maybe luckily, there isn’t an abundance of apps that make everyone a dazzling writer (autocorrect doesn’t count) or reading as quick and easy as glancing (we’re yet to see if Spritz will take over the world). Therefore, making someone take the time to read is the first challenge. But exactly therein lies the beauty and efficiency of it: stories told in words require time, effort and processing, and in turn produce true engagement and imagination by requiring those very same things from their consumer.

Good things don’t always come easy.

One must also be aware of how our media landscape affects our thinking – even before we realise we have started thinking. Take for example one of the strategically most genius campaigns of recent years, Dixon’s ‘The last place you want to go’, which used brilliant long copy. Could it have happened today? Or do we already, perhaps subconsciously, begin brainstorms with what the story might look like rather than what the story is? Marshall McLuhan’s masterthought ‘medium is the message’ might be 50 years old but it’s never been more topical than now, when social media is evolving like an erratic, headless chicken.

Often, images have a way of impacting us in a way that words in a line could dream of; often they really are worth a thousand words. Increasingly it’s film, due to it combining best of the both worlds at war here, that tells the story in the most compelling manner. And sometimes, we still need words: tales, punch lines, updates, poems, tweets, novels – anything that makes someone stop, read, process and draw those images slowly in their own mind, all by themselves. Call me old-fashioned, but the reward one gets from such mental creativity is irreplaceable.

And just sometimes, what might seem old-fashioned at first could end up being bolder and more progressive than any of the next quick-fix-photo-video-panorama-GIF-GoPro-sharing platforms that’s bound to be featured on the front page of Mashable next month.

Our generation has made gigantic leaps in the way we communicate with each other. Let’s be careful that we don’t end up closing the 7,000-year-old circle and revert back to the days of mere pictograms. Let’s not pretend that this thing called ‘language’ never happened, just because confirming to the latest social media trends is easier than challenging them.

It’s not a good look, even with Earlybird.

Maria Kivimaa, social media curator, FCB Inferno