"For the first time ever," John Berger remarked, "images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free."
He said that in 1972. Since then, images have become even more ubiquitous and even more free. Advances in photographic technology -- Kodak to Polaroid to Canon to Lytro -- have been shifting the cultural economics of pictures, transforming them from something scarce and therefore artistic and into something abundant and therefore mundane. Susan Sontag's accusation of aggressive photo-flâneurie is giving way, in the age of the smartphone's permattached camera, to something more promiscuous and more practical: the reflexive visual archive. The line between seeing the world and recreating it has never been thinner.
That fact is reflected everywhere on the Internet -- a world that was born of text (the first HTML, the first linkblogs, the first instant messages and emails) but which quickly adjusted its architecture to accommodate images (emoticons! jpgs! Geocities! animated gifs!) and video (cats!). Today's web, as an aesthetic object, is an advanced dialectic between text and image. (Comic sans, obviously, being the evil spawn of the two.) Online, text lives alongside decorative illustrations and share buttons and logos and embedded videos, the whole vibrant cacophony interacting so seamlessly that it's easy to forget that text and image are, in fact, different mediums. Social networks, in particular, break down neatly along text/image lines: There's Twitter, heavy on the text and low on the pictures, and then there's Facebook and Google+ (heavy text/heavy image), and then Tumblr (heavy image/low text), and then, at the other end of the spectrum, Pinterest (heavy image/effectively no text).
Which is all great. Neither text nor images are inherently better than the other; the beauty of the digital environment is the permission it gives us to avoid making false choices. Web = words + images. Obviously, obviously.
But a funny thing has been happening lately: Almost all of the advances taking place within our established social networks have emphasized images at the expense of text. There's the rise of Pinterest, most obviously, and its almost text-free explosion of pictures and pins. And the less-meteoric-but-still-pretty-remarkable rise of Flickr and Instagram and Hipstamatic and their fellow photographic networks. But there's also Facebook, doubling down on its photo-heavy Timeline. And Google+, selling itself on its video Hangouts. There's the small matter of YouTube. And the viral profusion of Tumblr. Even Twitter -- spare, text-y little Twitter -- has, in its latest web redesign, emphasized user avatars, not to mention video and image attachments, much more boldly than it ever did before.
And it's not just social media. Web layouts, under the influence of the iPad aesthetic and, increasingly, the promises of responsive design, are accentuating images. Infographics, aided by user-friendly software, are proliferating. As screens of all sizes become better able to accommodate intricate images -- and as pictures and video become cheaper and easier to publish -- these trends will likely continue. The web, aesthetically, is bending toward the visual. Just as Mitch Stephens predicted: the rise of the image, the fall of the word.
Or, at least: The rise of the image. The web, being huge, will easily accommodate content that expresses itself textually and visually (and whatever else comes along) as it, inevitably, keeps expanding. While we're seeing, in the content world, the rise of image-heavy features like Buzzfeed scrollfests and HuffPostian slideshows and The Atlantic's own, awesome In Focus, we're seeing at the same time the rise of text-heavy content from Longform.org, and Longreads, and, for that matter, long-form narrative sub-designations on Technology channels of magazine websites. We're seeing Atavist-style works that take the most textual technology there is -- the book -- and reimagine it as a dynamic artifact of multimedia. Words and images will always coexist, and to great effect; it takes a village to make a LOLcat.
And yet. If our two main mediums will be coexisting in new ways -- if images, indeed, become easier to produce than words, reversing the economics that have defined our archived communication since long before Gutenberg came along -- what then? How will that change the web, and us along with it? The invention of writing, Marshall McLuhan argued -- and, even more so, writing's codification into print -- structured our minds and our habits of thought, conditioning us, word by ink-stained word, to think logically and linearly. Text, Walter Ong believed, affords to its collective readers a means of theoretical thinking: Preliterate people, he observed, tend not to process the world in terms of categories and other abstractions. Text helped make us what we are. It helped make us who we are.
If Berger's notion of the artistic image as ubiquitous, valueless, free has been amplified by the ease of digital technologies -- what will that mean for the human viewers of those images? Will an image-heavy Internet replicate the cultural effects of the television? Or will it encourage us, over time, to become more emotional, more impulsive, and more empathetic?
The social web is more image-driven than ever. What will that mean for the people who use it?
Images: Shutterstock/Tim Hester Photography, Pinterest, Facebook.