THE BLOG

Lost for Words in the Age of the Emoji

25/01/2016 14:07 GMT | Updated 25/01/2017 10:12 GMT

The use of email by America's 12-17 year olds more than halved last year. It's one symptom of a trend that has taken us from War and Peace to the Emoji.

There was a time when people wrote letters to each other. Have you written a letter to a private individual (i.e. not a utility company, solicitor, etc) in the last five years? Do you know anyone who has? I thought not.

The golden age of letter writing is long gone, along with Dr Johnson and Charles Dickens. But Virginia Woolf died in 1941, leaving behind volumes of personal correspondence. It's only quite recently that letter writing has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Now, correspondence takes very different forms. All of which are short. I am therefore looking forward to the launch of the collected Facebook updates of David Cameron, and the concise, annotated Tweets of Stephen Fry. (Not forgetting the complete text messages of Rebekah Brooks.) Thanks to digital communication tools, the world has lost touch with long form communication.

And short form communications are getting shorter. We used to think 140 characters was restrictive, but the inventors of the YO app went one better, giving users the option of just a single word ('Yo', if you hadn't guessed it). The inventors tell me this is 'contextually based communication' - which means you're meant to figure out that when Dave sends you a Yo at 6pm, it's because Dave wants someone to go to the pub with. The Yo is supposedly all the message you need.

The UN should add 'Words' to its list of endangered species. Consider this. My daughter has around 4,000 photos and videos in her iPhone, most of which have been shared with her social network via the likes of Instagram and Snapchat. She almost never sends emails. She and her generation are growing up as visual communicators. This is the age of the picture.

Pictures are a super-short, yet highly complex form of communication. It easily could take a thousand words to accurately describe the contents of a photograph. Pictures cross language barriers with ease, and convey emotion with precision. Email and text messaging frequently do not. I'm sure we've all experienced the phenomenon of sentiment being completely misread by a recipient of one of our emails... This is one reason we like to use pictures - emoticons - to help people interpret what our short form written messages really mean.

So what does this mean for the professional communicators in the world of marketing and advertising?

If you want to communicate to post-literary generations, your start point is that their attention span is short, they do respond to arresting visual content and they don't respond to long copy communication.

As brands start to behave more like people and less like broadcasters - showing their personality, communicating rather than telling, engaging on an emotional level, and being part of a connected social life - they will need to learn a new visual language in order to be successful. Visual language is the language of the designer not of the copywriter and I'm delighted that this (IMHO) rather undervalued profession seems set for better days providing 'content' for marketing purposes.

I suspect that in communications agencies, the art directors may become more influential than the copywriters. (It didn't used to be like that. They used to say that the art director was the one with the felt pens, the copywriter the one with the brains. But that was, of course, deeply unfair.)

Shaun Varga, chairman and creative director of Ingenuity