Total Pageviews

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Disruptions: Social Media Images Form a New Language Online

Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, had an epiphany about the simplicity of communication through images while wearing Google Glass, the company’s controversial, high-tech glasses.

Mr. Brin said he was eating a meal while wearing Glass when he received a text message asking what he was doing. He snapped a picture with his glasses and replied with the photo of his surroundings.

“It was fascinating to see that I could just reply to a text message with a photo,” Mr. Brin said in an interview. He didn’t need to type or say anything; the image was enough.

Photos, once slices of a moment in the past â€" sunsets, cappuccinos, the family vacation â€" are fast becoming an entirely new type of dialogue. The cutting-edge crowd is learning that communicating with a simple image, be it a picture of what’s for dinner or a street sign that slyly indicates to a friend, “Hey, I’m waiting for you,” is easier than bothering with words, even in a world of hyper-abbreviated tweets and texts./p>

“This is a watershed time where we are moving away from photography as a way of recording and storing a past moment,” said Robin Kelsey, a professor of photography at Harvard University, and we are “turning photography into a communication medium.”

Not surprisingly, the largest social networking companies are spending billions of dollars to be the place where consumers latch onto these visual nods. They know the stakes. While it might seem that Yahoo’s Flickr, Facebook, which also owns Instagram, and Twitter are fighting to become the ultimate online photo album or video vault, these companies are really fighting to provide the service for the newest way to communicate. Miss that shift, and they risk irrelevancy.

Mr. Brin isn’t alone with his brisk visual responses. Snapchat is a mobile application that allows a person to take and send a picture or video, then control how long â€" up to 10 seconds â€" it’s visible to the person who receives it. After the photo is viewe! d, it disappears forever, like a casual exchange on the street.

“You have images now that have no possible afterlife,” said Mr. Kelsey. “They are simply communicative.”

From the Paleolithic drawings of the Lascaux Cave in France to the fleeting pictures of Snapchat, managed in an office near the beach in Venice, Calif., in 20,000 years or so we continue to express ourselves through images.

But the art of ancient hunters never had the opportunity to go viral. Evan Spiegel, Snapchat’s co-founder, who built the service two years ago while at Stanford University, recently said that Snapchat users sent 200 million images a day, up from 50 million images a day in December.

Snapchat isn’t alone with its rapid rise in image-sharing. Instagram said last week that people shared 45 million photos a day on the site; 16 billion in total since it began less than three years ago. On Facebook, people share 300 million images each day, or 100 billion photos a year.

WhatsApp, anothermessaging platform that allows people to share photos, videos, text or audio notes, processes more than 27 billion messages a day on the service. Vine, Twitter’s six-second video-sharing app, has signed up more than 13 million people since it began in January. And the new Instagram video service, introduced just two weeks ago, seems to be playing catch-up with its competitors by allowing people to share 15-second clips.

What’s more, there are no language barriers with images. As the world grows smaller, thanks to technology, people from all over the globe can chat with images that translate into a universal tongue. Do you speak only Mandarin? No problem, you can now communicate with someone who speaks only English. Take a picture and reply. Germans and Spaniards? Sna! p! Send. ! Done.

According to Instagram, more than 50 percent of people who use the service are outside North America, and global use of social sites continues to rise each year, with more than 63 percent of people online logging into a social media Web site at least once a month.

And it’s a shift that appears to be coming at the expense of the last big thing. Images sent between cellphones are on the rise as text messages continue to fall, according to CTIA, the trade association for the wireless industry. An industry report released this year said 2.19 trillion text messages were sent and received in 2012, about 5 percent less than a year earlier. In comparison, MMS, or multimedia messages that include photos and videos, grew by 41 percent to 74.5 billion in 2012.

Investors are noticing. Last week, Snapchat said it had raisd $60 million in financing, which brings its total financing to $73 million and values the company at $860 million. Twitter bought Vine, before it even was introduced, for an undisclosed sum. And don’t forget that Facebook paid $1 billion for Instagram last year.

So isn’t this all bad for society? Another hatchet toward the English language where children won’t even bother to communicate in LOL-speak anymore?

“We’re tiptoeing into a potentially very deep and interesting new way of communicating,” said Mitchell Stephens, author of “The Rise of the Image, the Fall of ! the Word,! ” and a journalism professor at New York University. “And as with anything, when you tiptoe in, you start in the shallow waters.”

E-mail: bilton@nytimes.com