My seventeen-year-old daughter, Sadie, and her friends use Snapchat, sharing snaps upwards of forty times a day. Sadie tells me that their conversations are “just pics with short captions.” The pic is typically a selfie of a stupid or ugly face (“look at my fucking forehead!”). Receivers respond with another ugly face and a funny retort (“YOU LOOK LIKE A KLINGON”). Sadie and her friends also post “stories,” stitched together photos and videos from their daily lives. Sadie says her stories are mostly “about my sick life” (“sick” apparently means good, fun, cool, or desirable in some inchoate sense).
In the last six months of 2015, I posted over a hundred pictures of Sadie’s cat, Wesley, on Facebook. Sadie was okay with this. I posted the photos under the heading “Daily Wesley” (copying the practice of a friend who regularly posts photos of his dog, “Daily Koda”). In the comments on the “Daily Wesley” (which actually isn’t daily but once or twice a week, unless I am out of town or, conversely, on a cat photography roll), friends write captions: sometimes as hashtags, sometimes in Wesley’s voice, as if he were captioning his own pictures, and sometimes as if they were sharing an intimacy with Wesley directly.
After attending a One Direction (1D) concert with Sadie and her cousins this summer, I started following the band on Twitter. Most interesting was the One Direction fandom, the hundreds of thousands of passionate fans from among the band’s 26 million followers. When tweeting their reactions to various 1D-related happenings (the release of a track from the band’s new album, a remark from former band member Zayn Malik, or news of an award or major prize nomination), fans would use photos of the band members, Harry, Louis, Liam, Niall or some combination thereof, to express their feelings. For many fans, words alone could not convey the intensity of their emotions (although at least one did pretty well when she said that she gave thanks every day for being alive at the same time as 1D). 1D photos communicated the feelings of 1D fans to each other, to the world, or at least to Twitter. A happy Harry or surprised Niall expressed the tweeter’s own delight. Funny or clever tweets accumulated thousands of retweets and likes. Sometimes there would only be three or four. The overall effect was of immense flows of sensation streaming off the screen.
These instances of photographically-mediated personal communication are not unique. They are common, generic. My examples here could apply to anyone. In digital communication, images supply the raised eyebrow, sidelong glance, and disgusted grimace inseparable from face-to-face communication. Word, gesture, and image intersect, overlap, and combine: face palm; and I’m like
Using photos of others to illustrate a feeling, particularly in a humorous or ironic manner, is as ubiquitous on Twitter as the hashtag.
In this series of blog posts, I reflect on the repetition of images and circulation of photos as communicative practices. I am interested in how mass personalized media involves “secondary visuality,” that is, a kind of communication that blends together speech, writing, and image into something irreducible to its components, something new.
“Secondary visuality” is akin to what Walter Ong theorized as “secondary orality,” the transmission of spoken language in a print culture. Ong himself mentions “secondary visualism” in an unpublished lecture he gave late in his life, linking it to virtual reality as he explores the production of immediacy and distance in electronic communication. I use the term “secondary visuality” here to designate the incorporation of images into mass practices of mediated personal communication. A quick way to think about it: from face-to-face interaction, to print (the written letter, perhaps with photographs included), to voice (telephone), to immediate text (email, SMS), to photo-sharing (Flickr), to social media incorporating writing and photos, to personal communication conducted through combinations of words, photographs, images, and short videos (gifs). One doesn’t replace another. They overlay and combine, changing preceding forms and practices in the process.
A number of the attributes of communication characteristic of oral cultures appear in today’s digitally networked interactions (for more detail, see my book, Blog Theory):
- Ideas are combined via addition – and, and, and – rather than in a more qualifying, supporting, or hierarchizing fashion (“although,” “under certain conditions”);
- Repetition is frequent;
- Connection with actual experience, a shared lifeworld, is more compelling than analytical connection to an abstract field;
- Ideas express empathy and identification or their lack;
- Ideas are positioned as poles within a field of oppositions (for or against).
In subsequent posts, I consider the political repercussions of secondary visuality. Does secondary visuality imply a loss of criticality, a new power of the commons, widespread narcissism, the post-political force of networks or some other widely popular yet wildly divergent assessment of our intensely mediated, intensely capitalist present? What sort of sense might we make of the practices of photo-sharing now ubiquitous in and as contemporary communication? What does it mean when images are less for view than they are for circulation?