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Do You See What I'm Saying? The Link Between Visual Culture and Empathy

06/08/2015 17:35 BST | Updated 06/08/2016 10:59 BST

Not so long ago, it was revealed that emoji (picture messaging) is the fastest growing language in the UK, fuelled by the global adoption of smartphones and IM. While it can sometimes feel hard to keep up - or perhaps precisely because of this - it's clear that pictures > words on the internet.

There's no set of guidelines for emoji use, and they have no official names beyond those granted by their users. The language is still evolving - in spite of attempts by the Unicode Consortium, who control which emoticons go into our standard smartphone keyboards, to impose some consistency in their use. Google have patented a text-to-branded-emoji translator which, if successful, would introduce a worrying bias into everyday conversation.

At a broader level, a tacit understanding of 'pictures or it didn't happen' has led to frantic biographical documentation - with visual social networks like Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr gladly springing up to accommodate. There have been no fewer than three emoji-only social networks - emojicate, emoj.li and Steven (no longer available).

The universal meaning of the sad and happy face has made them powerfully persuasive when designing for certain behaviours, such as more efficient energy use around the home. More recently, Cambridge University researchers found that putting emoticons on food labels yielded stronger effects on perceptions of taste and healthiness than the colour-coded labels currently being debated by the EC.

Show not tell

People who are actively engaged in social media - and young people in particular - are constantly aware of their audience and their role as entertainers. Images leave much unsaid and open to interpretation, so their meaning and intention can be defended in line with audience feedback and the threat of social shame. They're also useful in projecting an aspirational persona, again carefully curated. From one (less flattering) angle, however, this could be seen as a lack of clearly defined personality. With the broadest imaginable pool of influences at their fingertips, people can be everything at once, and this has made them less of any one thing.

Chris Christodoulou, a media theory and music professor at Westminster who has extensively studied various musical subcultures, has seen this non-commital, pick 'n' mix approach to identity play reflected in his students' choice of clothing. Whether it's a Kid'n'Play haircut blended with grungey trousers, "there's no distinction between subcultures anymore." This isn't surprising when you consider the huge, ahistorical pool of imagery they're bombarded with online - retro gifs, pins, picture memes, Facebook stickers, vintage-style Instagram shots. They can dip into and play with it without needing to commit to an opinion or statement about what any of it means.

Chris has also noticed, anecdotally, that some of the most wildly dressed on campus have the least clearly defined personalities when you speak to them; conversely, I wonder whether the blank canvas of 'normcore' clothing is a direct reaction against this. The more boring you look, the theory goes, the more interesting you are.

There's a parallel to this online, summed up in the reference to having "all the feels". Writer Katy Waldman describes the emergence of an emotion economy - an OTT spectacle of sentiment influenced by reality TV culture. Being seen to care or feel deeply about something adds to your personal brand value. Hence the outpouring of grief whenever a well-respected celebrity or activist dies - are you really feeling those feels, or just needing to express something? There's an inverse correlation between actual emotional sentiment and its expression. 'Feels' are a way of actually distancing yourself from emotion online. In a lot of cases, the more you say you feel, the less real emotion you're likely to be experiencing.

Empathy and ambient attention

But while it creates a positive feedback loop in a 'nudge' situation, choosing between two binary emotions presents challenges for more nuanced reflection or communication. Perhaps we just don't yet have the words to fit the varied and complex emotional responses represented by the hundreds of available Facebook stickers. And that's before you include custom emoji; services like Imoji allow you to turn any image on your phone into a custom sticker.

Any erosion in language barriers will need to contend with the incessant drive for individualism as self-defining groups of individuals carve out private spaces of secret meaning. Reaction gifs are an indicator of this - the Jean Luc Picard facepalm clip both communicates a well-known expression for one broad audience yet carries within it a second layer of knowing for Star Trek fans.

But perhaps the most significant aspect of the shift to pictorial communication is that it offers up potential for exploring what Amber Case calls 'calm technology'. We process images much faster than text (one commonly quoted stat reckons 60,000 times faster), perhaps we don't really need to focus on them to understand them. They could be background notifications, at the periphery of our vision but no less powerful, as we saw with the now-defunct Steven app and its quiet but persistent emoji life logging.

In an age of chaos and constant noise, there's value in gentle unobtrusive communication - and visual languages could be one possible avenue for this. As Jenna Wortham writes in praise of her favourite emoji, picture messages offer "a way to be present when there's nothing to say at all".

A longer version of this article originally appeared on Libertine