Is the Future of Conversation Visual?

By Sarah DeCaux

This is the second part of our series on the changing nature of communication. Here we’re exploring the way in which communication has become increasingly visual (we’ve previously discussed how more of our communication is in written format).

We hope this series will inspire you to join us at ESOMAR Fusion in November, where I’m leading a Masterclass on this topic.

Act 2: The Dominance of the Visual

As conversation has moved online, it has become increasingly visual. This has been facilitated by technology (smartphones, faster better 3/4/5G technology and broadband).

Each day 350 million photos are shared on Facebook[i], 95 million photos are shared via Instagram[ii] and now 74% of all web traffic is video content[iii]. By anyone’s estimation, that is a lot of photos, videos and a lot of sharing. And this visualisation of language and communication is a global trend[iv].

Pictures enable us to communicate differently to the written or spoken word, and they are arguably at times more revealing. They showcase context and expose aspects of our identity and our lives that we may not think to show, tell, or be able to articulate to, a researcher. Ultimately, they may express an emotion in a different and more compelling way than we are able to do in words. But for us as researchers, they also pose different challenges – if we intend to analyse, interpret and explore them.

And as with the written word, if consumers are more comfortable expressing themselves in these visual mediums, and come to see this as their preferred (or one of their preferred) means of communication, what are the implications for qualitative research as a practice?

The Rise of the Emoji

Alongside the increasing sharing of pictures and videos, there’s the indeterminable rise of the emoji. Over 90% of social media users communicate via emojis, and more than six billion are shared every day[v].

Emojis enable us to shortcut language and are a growing global trend, albeit one with diverse cultural facets and challenges. There has been much hyperbole about whether it is a truly global language and what it means for other forms of communication.

Whatever your view, it’s clear we are using more of them, and this trend plays into this notion of bite size conversations, which although their meaning and interpretation could be complex, in and of themselves, are short and sharp. And quite simply they are another illustration that the way we communicate with each other is changing.

The Curated Self

One final important piece of context here is that we are seeing growing evidence that consumers (particularly younger age groups) are savvy to how they present themselves online. A recent UK government study shows selfie-takers take on average six pictures before posting one (Ofcom, 2017). And there is increasingly a curated self, presented online – with filters and carefully chosen images used to present a picture that may or may not be what we would see, experience and interpret were we to meet that person “in real life”.

This plays out in video content as well. Platforms like Periscope and Snapchat enable consumers to weave the “real” and digital world together whilst experimenting with endless forms of expression. According to wearesocial:

“…new interactive video formats are producing a set of socially savvy consumers who are now thinking in detail about storylines, composition, transitions, punchlines, graphics, after effects, grading and now interactivity…”[vi]

This is clearly not an unguarded, natural snapshot of a moment in time. It is much more than that.

There’s a Challenge for Qualitative Researchers Here…

Whatever your views on all this, and whether you think it is critically important or merely a vaguely interesting social change, visual media is in the ascendance, and we haven’t even really touched on memes and gifs here. And it does offer a window into consumer’s lives that is different to what has come before.

Visual artefacts are quite simply not the same as what we write or what we might say. As qualitative researchers, this poses further challenges for us around the skills we need, how we interpret and make sense of this type of data and the role of culture in our analysis.

In the final part of this series, I’ll be exploring organic data online and how we make sense of this. We’ll also be picking up on the theme of culture, bringing in a Semioticians view. Look out next week for Act 3: How can we best leverage all this user generated data… and should we even try?

Sarah De Caux, Head of Spirit, Join the Dots