Hieroglyphic Nation: Time To Show Us A Story

In 1915 poet Vachel Lindsay wrote one of the seminal books of popular culture analysis, The Art of the Motion Picture. In charting the importance of new media technologies, Lindsay foreshadowed Marshall McLuhan in suggesting that cutting-edge technologies were in fact invoking pre-modern modes of communication and social relations. “American civilization grows more hieroglyphic every day,” he wrote. “The cartoons of Darling, the advertisements in the back of the magazines and on the bill-boards and in the street-cars, the acres of photographs in the Sunday newspapers, make us into a hieroglyphic civilization far nearer to Egypt than to England… . There is not a man in America writing advertisements or making cartoons or films but would find delightful the standard books of Hieroglyphics sent out by the British Museum, once he gave them a chance. They represent that very aspect of visual life which Europe understands so little in America, and which has been expanding so enormously even the last year.”

Lindsay really was predicting a hieroglyphic century where the signature media forms in America were predominantly visual. Who better than a poet to understand what a seismic shift this represented? And yet he was smart enough not to bemoan the decline of literacy so much as celebrate the rise of what he called “splendor” -- various kinds of experiences, religious, crowd, patriotic, given expression through a visual language. At the same time he proposed that in addition to depicting splendor, film was adept at depicting interior worlds, both physical and psychological. In other words, “intimacy.”

He could just as well have been writing about smartphone media. Mobility has accelerated the adoption of visual social media. The image and visual communication are fast emerging as the signature languages of smartphones. According to the latest survey from Global Web Index, Instagram is now installed on about a quarter of Internet users’ phones. About 10% of connected users globally are using it regularly.

This is not just a trend about the brightest, shiniest object. Or, well, maybe it sort of is -- considering it is part of a larger migration toward visually based media. Instagram is the fastest-growing of the social networks, up in active use by 25% in the last six months. But interestingly, it is followed in growth closely by Tumblr (up 22%) and Pinterest (7%), which is also predominantly mobile now.

These image-centric mobile social nets are cannibalizing mainly text. LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are showing single-digit dropoff in overall usage, by GWI’s survey-based count.

A curious loser in this shift to mobile -- and especially visual networks -- is YouTube, which saw some of the steepest declines in usage (-8%) in the last six months.

Mobile social media is a unique circumstance. Trying to capture attention and communicate a basic hook in the brief second or so that an image passes into the scroll window is a nascent art. We have already heard from some early Vine and Instagram video makers that the first two seconds are the most important. In very short order on these networks, we have seen very creative uses of headlining, thumbnails on video clips, animated text and more.

The guys at NowThis News are among the most adept at this. But some brands are finding their visual inner self to leverage the new medium and consumption patterns. And speaking of patterns, apparel and accessories designer Lilly Pulitzer is fully embracing the format by publishing “5X5” series of images on Pinterest and Instagram. These images are design patterns made and posted each day by 5 p.m. from the company’s own design shop. It at once brings you inside the company and expresses the quirky and bright nature of the brand. Fans comment often that the regular nature of the upbeat postings add a lift to the end of their day. This is using visuals in a subtle way that gets its power from consistency both of quality and delivery.

Every new media technology is at once liberating and constraining in creative ways. Radio, TV, and now mobile all had remarkable creative challenges (no images, small screens, no color, etc.). In each case new aesthetics were born from these limitations because they forced greater focus on the aesthetic strengths of the medium.

One of the fascinating things about new media in any historical content is the way in which they often recall older skill sets even as they demand new approaches. Lindsay had it right in likening film to hieroglyphics. Early filmmakers had to develop a new language of storytelling that relied heavily on old forms of iconography even as it developed new tropes involving the motion and visual scale movies introduced. In its early years TV reached back to vaudeville (Milton Berle, variety formats) and reimagined a 19th-century comedy of manners genre as situation comedy.

The visual social media of mobile can leverage a host of new technical novelties, but innovators here may want to start with print advertising and the one panel comic strip for inspiration. How interesting that one of the signature images this week was first Lady Michelle Obama glancing sternly and determinedly and holding a sign with the text “#BringBackOurGirls” to address kidnappers of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls. Sure, it was hijacked by her and the Administration’s critics. But these posts became a novel visual conversation. Like the one panel editorial cartoon or comic, these work by marrying static image with text.    

The gauntlet is thrown down to all creative now.

Show us a story.   

We will be taking up this very topic at the May 21 OMMA Mobile at Internet Week event in New York. Executives from Lilly Pulitzer, Joule, IMM and Curalate will be on hand.    

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