The Future of Graphics in Social Media

When Facebook rolled out its tweaks to its news feed last week, I was first struck by the new larger size of images. I thought “this looks like Tumblr.” I’ll write more on Tumblr later, but the point here is that Facebook appears to have learned something Tumblr has known for a while: people like looking at pretty things.

Larger images will make Facebook’s news feed even more addictive to users and presents a new opportunity for organizations to use imagery to get their message out. It’s important to note that these larger images haven’t rolled out to Facebook’s brand pages yet. They’re only available to personal profiles now, but it’s safe to assume that that brand pages will get them before long.

The shift from showing thumbnails in the news feed to showing 300px wide images may appear to be a simple change, but it’s not. It’s a big deal. Connie Malamed explains why images are such an important communication tool in the introduction to her excellent Visual Communication for Designers:

We have no choice but to be drawn to images. Our brains are beautifully wired for the visual experience. For those with intact visual systems, vision is the dominant sense for acquiring perceptual information. We have over one million nerve fibers sending signals from the eye to the brain, and an estimated 20 billion neurons analyzing and integrating visual information at rapid speed. We have a surprisingly large capacity for picture memory, and can remember thousands of images with few errors.

In short: a picture is worth a thousand words, as proven by science.

Facebook’s larger images will let organizations make a quick and emotional impression on their likers right in the news feed, without requiring a click through. As such, organizations should start thinking about image selection as carefully as they think about copy. Images are no longer decorative flourishes within a copy-centric communication strategy. They’re content. The kinds of images you share, their production value, and their ability to communicate will shape your brand, for better or for worse.

As a consultant and amateur academic, I was thrilled to learn that there’s a word to describe the skills needed to communicate with imagery: graphicacy. As Wikipedia defines it, graphicacy is “concerned with the capacities people require in order to interpret and generate information in the form of graphics.” My family, friends, and colleagues will soon get sick of hearing me overuse the term. Note that “graphics” can describe essentially any two dimensional visual presentation: photos, charts, comics, memes, etc.

Communicating via imagery – graphicacy, that is – is nothing new, but Facebook’s recent interface changes, Twitter’s native support for photos, and the rise of Tumblr are making imagery an essential part of any social media content strategy. Magazines and some newspapers are already adept at using graphics as content, but many government organizations and companies do not have the operations or skills to do so.

Just as social media has required more organizations to develop stronger copy writing operations, it is now requiring them to develop graphic editing skills. If you aren’t already, it’s time to start brushing up on your graphicacy.

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