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We Talk In Pictures Now, But What Does It Mean?

How emojis, memes, and selfies are making us smarter—and bringing us together.

Illustration Hisashi Okawa

There are 3,459 miles between London and New York, and five disorienting hours of time difference. When I was in a long-distance relationship while living in the UK, the separation felt the roughest first thing in the morning and last thing at night. We would Skype and send emails across the Atlantic, but most of all, we would text. On one particularly crappy day, when I was feeling those miles more than ever, the text that made it all better didn't contain words at all.

Even now, looking at those two characters, my cheeks burn with that ticklish pain that you get when you've been laughing for a long time. The tiny dancing woman and the tiny running man said, I miss you, and I'm coming, and hang in there, and a dozen other things. The emojis were silly, and they stopped me from being silly. Everything was going to be okay.

It's hardly a novel realization, but everyone talks in images now. We tell stories about ourselves through the pictures we post online. We show we're paying attention by making memes that riff on current events. And yes, we send strings of emojis to loved ones to feel closer. In order to find out how image-based communication is changing the way we relate to one another, I spoke with four experts in the worlds of art and language: New York artists Andrew Kuo and Kari Altmann, who work across multiple media and have an interest in the platforms Instagram and Tumblr, respectively; Daniel van der Velden, co-founder of Dutch design agency Metahaven and author of a book about the power of memes, Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?; and Montreal linguist and writer Gretchen McCulloch.

"Emojis, emoticons, and even Snapchat add back a sense of gesture, body language, and tone of voice."—Gretchen McCulloch

According to McCulloch, as social life migrates online, visual forms of communication become increasingly attractive because they replicate some of the physical experience we've lost. "Emojis, emoticons, and even Snapchat add back a sense of gesture, body language, and tone of voice," she told me. Just think how many times a day—an hour?—your fingers find your phone, on the hunt for the refresh button that will deliver a fresh crop of pictures from friends and family members into the palm of your hand.

By day, good news emails are paired with a GIF of Drake popping a bottle in the club. At night, countless semi-nude selfies fly through cyberspace, a digital rendering of the come-hither glance. Just as we crave physical affection, we are now addicted to consuming and producing images. We share them, we like them, and we reblog them, but we are never satisfied for long. The feed always needs feeding—and there's plenty to fill it with, according to Metahaven's van der Velden. "There is an incredible avalanche of little fragments that make up our communication environment," he tells me on a Skype call from Amsterdam, "and they are addictive because you can consume them so easily."

"There is an incredible avalanche of little fragments that make up our communication environment, and they are addictive."—Daniel van der Velden

Admittedly, our reliance upon images is nothing new. The first documented piece of communication was an image: whereas humans have only been writing for around 2,500 years, the oldest cave paintings date back to around 35,000 BC. "Before mass literacy, images were how you told historical stories and stories of the lives of saints," McCulloch says, referring to illuminated manuscripts, Medieval stained glass windows, and the doodles that decorated early personal letter writing. And while computer and cellphone technology has enabled a renewed focus on image-orientated communication in the past century, McCulloch points out that it was technology that did away with it in the first place: the birth of the printing press squeezed the image out of the page. Elsewhere in the world, words and pictures haven't always been separate to begin with. "Chinese characters are based loosely on things they look like," says Kuo, who, in addition to creating large-scale abstract chart paintings in his professional practice, runs the cult Instagram account @earlboykins, aggregating the internet's goofiest photos to highlight the joy of being alive right now. "'Water' looks like drips of water. The word for 'man' kind of looks like a man with legs and arms. It's mutated through thousands of years, but they all have origins in pictograms."

"Images are our native tongue in a way," says Altmann, whose Tumblr-based work explores trends in image circulation. "We see and express the world through imaging, and we think in imaging." While some may turn their nose up at emojis for "dumbing down" our language, visual forms of communication can add richness and subtlety to daily exchanges. "We're adding another wrinkle into the way we talk to each other," says Kuo. "I don't think kids are becoming zombies. If I have a kid, I'll just throw a smart phone in his or her hand. Remember when they thought video games were going to create this elite intellectual and emotionally stunted class? Now these video kids have grown up, myself included, and I feel pretty normal. I cry during movies, and I can balance my checkbook."

Back in the 1950s, publishers and film studios exerted control over the flow of images to the public—the iconic and seemingly candid photo of Marilyn Monroe in a windblown white dress, for example, was actually orchestrated by 20th Century Fox as promo for The Seven Year Itch. Then the rise of the internet and the development of the smartphone turned everything upside down, effectively putting image production—and therefore image-based communication—in the hands of the people. Today, anyone with a phone camera and a cute smile can snap their way to stardom. "It used to take a certain kind of effort to make an image," says Altmann. "Now you don't have to have a ton of resources or talent to make them." She points out that in the era of Google Images, you don't even need a camera: simply search and download what you want and customize away.

"We're adding another wrinkle into the way we talk to each other."—Andrew Kuo

For an image to survive and succeed on today's web, it must reach as many eyes and platforms as possible—something the net-native generation knows instinctively. Youth culture has always rallied around images—from punks to seapunks—but now that kids have the platform to make and share images themselves, minor celebrities and micro-cultures spring up like mushrooms. "The human drive just loves that shit," laughs Altmann. "We love to be spreading our seed all the time." Just as the gene is programmed to reproduce, memes are only memes if they go viral and plant themselves into the collective consciousness.

Unsurprisingly, corporations are eager to co-opt these new forms of grassroots communication. This February, Twitter announced it was acquiring Niche, one of a rising number of social media monetization companies who help self-made Vine and Twitter stars to make big bucks by aligning with brands. But it's not just the social media star's caché and social following the brand is buying. When fans like the post, share it, or even create their own versions, their interactions generate valuable data on how to market other stuff to them in the future. And just like that, self-expression becomes consumer behavior.

"People can make concepts way faster and spread them very instantly. To me, that's tied in to things like Arab Spring."—Kari Altmann

Does all this mean the democratization that image-based communication promised was a lie? Not entirely, no: in the hands of the people, the image still holds radical possibilities, not least in its ability to stir people into action. For example, the images of police brutality that circulated on social media platforms following the tragic murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown helped galvanize strong and vocal online communities who continue to put pressure on the US government. What's more, the plethora of ways in which we can now create, customize, and communicate with images is also actively paving the way for new communities. "People can make concepts way faster and spread them very instantly," says Altmann. "To me, that's tied in to things like Arab Spring." When Reuters reporter Khaled Abdullah took a photo of a man wearing a makeshift helmet made of bread during the February 2011 protests in Yemen, it lit up the internet and generated scores of memes that—despite or maybe because of their humor—brought attention to the protesters' plight.

But what happens next? Can memes really bring down governments? Metahaven's van der Velden believes that "You can, to some extent, destabilize a system by joking about it. You will find people that are in on the joke, and the more politics becomes a matter of technocratic management, the more it's prone to be vulnerable to jokes." In swiftly communicating important global events to the world, memes can make people listen and make people care. The image no longer belongs solely to artists or film studios, publishers or corporations—it is for everyone to use to communicate whatever they like, whether it's to send an emoji hug or highlight social injustice. Of course, as van der Velden points out, "It's not as though all this can happen without there being any sort of real thing happening on the ground." An image of an IRL protest ignites the online conversation, which leads to new communities and collective action, and the loop is complete. Now we're really talking.

From The Collection:

The Photo Issue 2015
We Talk In Pictures Now, But What Does It Mean?