With Instagram’s latest updates, the exploration section in the main menu was replaced by a section that allows you to solely view reels (short videos). This change definitely surprised many of the users, including me. However, I was thinking a lot about the development of digital communication lately and the latest Instagram update fits into my observations.
Today, there are many social media platforms that billions of people use daily. Each of those platforms found a niche in the broader realm of human interaction and established itself there. For example, WhatsApp was originally designed to enable fast and direct text messaging. LinkedIn aimed to create a space for professionals and integrated a job market. Obviously, the list goes on with all the platforms, but if we compare the number of features that each platform offered 10 years ago and today, we can identify a clear trend towards visualisation.
When Instagram was sold to Facebook in 2012 for 1 billion American Dollar, the application was mainly something like a personal photo album that you could share digitally with your friends. In comparison, the application is now used to sell products, share photos, videos and temporary posts (stories), promote life styles and philosophies. Due to the large amount of users and the free unlimited use of the app, the amount of content on the platform is humongous with an ever-increasing amount of videos posted on a daily basis. WhatApp, too, moved in that direction by introducing video calls in 2016 and ‘status’ (the equivalent to Instagram’s and Facebook’s ‘story’). In 2020, Google Mail introduced a video conference feature – mainly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but nevertheless a video feature.
Whereas in the early days of social media platforms people were more reluctant to share videos of oneself, moved pictures are increasingly popular among the users. Not only on Instagram, but on the other platforms as well. This can be most clearly illustrated by looking at the emergence of recent social media platforms like Twitch and TikTok. From a pragmatic view, it makes sense, because videos enable the processing of more information within a shorter time. As we receive audio, video and text information at once, the range of emotions and information that we can express is much greater, compared to pictures and texts. First signs of this trend to the video were visible when the phenomenon of the 7-second video, or ‘vine’, gained popularity around 2013. In this format, people recreated commonly known daily situations or captured funny moments. By introducing the concept of the ‘story’, many platforms enabled the sharing of photos and videos for a timespan of 24 hours. Another leap was made when Instagram introduced video sharing as regular posts. While all this happened, the usage of YouTube massively increased (800 million users in 2012; more than 2 billion users today) and with it the number of active members who regularly upload content. The latest stage of this development is the rise of TikTok, which is a short video sharing platform, with its around 800 million users.
What does that tell us about our communication habits? Personally, I think that this trend could potentially compromise the quality of languages in the very long-run. The English language is short-syllabic and, hence, easy to learn and use. This makes the use of more sophisticated words and sentence structures obsolete, because the language is sufficient to fully communicate and even for the purpose of academic conduct. Now, the main language on the internet is English, since most of the content is uploaded in that language. As short videos become more popular and the trend of higher content output rises, more information needs to be compressed into limited time and space. To some degree this is managed by talking fast, but often speech, gestures and mimics are insufficient and need to be complemented with text. However, this text does seldom come in form of full sentences, but rather in fragments of a sentence – often with bad grammar. Eventually, the language is further simplified and alienated from its origin. As many languages adopted a vast amount of anglicisms in their respective languages, this observation also holds true for them; in countries where there is a high degree of emulation of the Western lifestyles, this effect is sometimes amplified.
Certainly, this is a development that facilitates the processing a higher quantity of information, but might ultimately compromise the quality of the content. How complex can the subjects of speech be, if the language itself is not complex enough to cover them? In the long-run, this can affect not only how, but what future generations are going to communicate. Of course, academic and business conduct will probably hardly be affected. However, I can imagine that our everyday language will lose much of its linguistic sophistication and beauty, if it did not do so already.
The decay of the language was always a popular subject among authors and philosophers – and all were proven wrong. Of course, language is an organic phenomenon and is always subject to change and if it is currently moving from textual to visual expression, then that is fine, too. However, rather being concerned with the form of communication, I fear the effects on the content, due to the structural problems outlined above.