Visuals: The Language of the Internet

by criticalhit009

squidward cleaning

In 2012, the Oxford Dictionary chose the word ‘gif’ as the word of the year. In response, WIRED writer Clive Thompson wrote about animated gifs, ruminating on why they captivate us:

In the age of YouTube and cameraphones and TiVo, we’re increasingly inundated with moving images. But the animated GIF lets us stop and ponder a single moment in the stream, to resee something that otherwise would zip by unnoticed.

Gifs distill and refine. They compress time and content for maximum impact. They are remarkably efficient that way.

While gifs are inundating the internet, images themselves are becoming more and more important for digital communication. Whereas the beginnings of the computer processing prized the written word, images and their quality are highly valued for their immediate, understandable impact today. Superflat art becomes more common as screens visually flatten our communication for easy consumption.


Comparing Apple OS 6 to OS 7. Note the flattening of images and space.

Images themselves are highly traded commodities, but to say they act as the current apex of digital communication would be inaccurate. It’s not just gifs and JPEGs that rule the internet, but rather the compression and conflation of images and words are becoming a standard, highly valued method of communication. For instance, there are literally hundreds of image macro memes, all with a set standard method of construction and expression. You never read any kind of article online (or, *GASP*, in print) without an accompanying picture. Gifs are rarely posted (and reposted) without overlaying words or accompanying text to contextualize the moving image. It’s the combination of words and images, especially combined word/image graphics, that dominate casual digital communication.

What can we gather from all this? Well, need for good graphic design will only increase as monitor quality increases and images rule. But it also illustrates the ever changing model of language. Whereas film and tv displaced the written word in terms of entertainment, images and image/text combinations that privilege the image rule internet communication. Fluctuation is normal and even perhaps necessary, revealing again that change is always constant in language.