It is a truism that pictures are inherently more powerful than words. Even language reflects that truth. When people want you to understand something, they say "picture this," not "hear this." The departed Hollywood luminaries are celebrated at the Oscars not with their words, but with their pictures. Back in the day, when Life Magazine wanted to sum up the previous 12 months, it was the Year in Pictures, not the Year in Quotations. Images hit humans at a deeper, more fundamental level than words and provoke stronger more elemental responses.
So, if that is true, why have words held such a long ascendancy as a mode of communication? The reasons, at core, are simple: Words are easy to mass produce, highly transportable and extremely flexible. Historically, images have been quite the opposite. They have been hard to make (step one...fetch oil paint and stretch canvas), complicated (cameras only got user friendly a few decades ago, and they still required processing and other specialized knowledge) and nearly impossible to alter once created.
Now, however, that situation has turned on its head. For the first time, images are easy to create, perhaps even easier than words. (I am seeing friends forward Snaps from their phones because it is easier than typing on the little keyboard.) And not just photos, there are apps now that allow anyone to doodle and share. The smart phone has unleashed images in a whole new way.
And, perhaps most importantly, the wall of permanence around images has been breached. Now images can be "sampled" like music and combined into new forms. They can be enhanced with powerful elements not in the frame when the shutter was snapped.
This has created a new Visual Vocabulary with profound implications for the future. This vocabulary may seem arcane to many, but not to the rising millennial generation. Raised on computer screens and smart phones they recognize and delight in the power of image. It is their argot.
That is why Pinterest took off. The mosaic of meaning demarcated by Pinerest boards hit people down deep in their joy, pain and motivational spots. That is why Instagram and Tumblr have become places where people expose their ids through serial images, whether they recognize it or not. That is why the instantaneous and fast-fading nature of Snapchat works for the rising generation; they are literally chatting through images, something once possible only with words.
One early example of what is coming is Snaps, a company that allows brand images and personal images to be blended in an entirely new, almost effortless way. (Social Starts, our fund, is an early investor in Snaps). As Snaps founder Vivian Rosenthal says, "Snaps is poised to shape this visual language of the future. It's universal. It's democratic. It moves effortlessly from continent to continent, connecting people across the globe through shared interests. And it's happening in real time with real people who now have the ability to not only chat through images, but to express themselves in a more creative and meaningful way by allowing them to embed virtual content into their photos and to engage is a visual collective consciousness."
And we stand just at the beginning of the transformation brought about by the Visual Vocabulary. Collective consciousness? Quite possibly!
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Pivot Conference. This event (held in New York on October 15-16, 2013), brings together more than 400 Social Business Leaders from major companies at the forefront of change. For more information about Pivot, click here.