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OP-ED: Covid-19 and the power of visual imagery

  • Published at 09:21 pm October 4th, 2020
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Photo: BIGSTOCK

The pandemic has provided an opportunity for a critical look at the role of visual platforms in society

Covid-19 has had an impact on every aspect of our lives, in ways unprecedented in modern memory. It’s a complex topic, subjected to frequent change and misinformation.

Young, talented people are using their storytelling and visual thinking skills to distill important information and context into info-graphics or other forms for social media. Physical presence, fieldwork-based education and communication instruction, and even practical lab-focused learning classes have gone to digital and virtual platforms with minimal or no-access to material or workshops.

Art shows in digital and virtual spaces, with much physical separation, have increased on social media and virtual platforms. The connecting and sharing of lives, knowledge, and experience through images have become more popular. 

Covid-19, visual imagery and social media

Covid-19 has pushed everyone to be on the computer or mobile networks -- from socializing on social networks, watching movies, to reading books, watching plays, etc. In the present Covid-19 situation, a life that was very digitized has now become even more so. Images are shared locally and globally through Meet and Zoom.

The Covid-19 pandemic is still far from over, and there is no doubt that educational sciences will analyze this sudden global shift of collecting information, learning, and even teaching online for many years to come. Yet, this collection makes a unique and important contribution to all future analyses, because it presents real-life testimonies of people’s struggles and feelings experienced at the very beginning of the first wave of the sudden shift online.

The virtual world has often been criticized as a distraction from the real physical world. But when a deadly pandemic afflicts us, not only meeting and teaching but also telemedicine and ordering food online have become a source of salvation.

We are adjusting to a new way of living; while it’s challenging, it has also created an interesting visual dilemma: How do we visually represent the times in which we are living? As a result, visual trends in social and business networking/marketing look different than we could have ever imagined.

The increasing power of digital technology and visual imagery

Visual imagery is a set of pictures or images. In other ways, it is a set of mental, pictorial, or rhetoric images (figurative or illustration). It appeals to the sense of sight and plays a large role in descriptive writing. It pertains to graphics, visual scenes, pictures, or the sense of sight.

Visual imagery is what we see: Book images, paintings, drawings, or images directly experienced through the narrator’s eyes. It may include colour, shape, size, and pattern. The visual gives images, which are open to the viewer to judge and assess. Images are powerful on their own. But when mixed with text, they become more powerful.

Audiences consistently respond well to the combination of words and visuals (images). Researchers have found that articles with relevant images get 94% more views on average compared to articles without. Certain types of articles especially benefit from images. 

Social media, which was initially text-driven, has now become more image-based. Today, visual pieces garner the most likes, views, shares, and comments. Images on Facebook receive 20% more engagement than videos, and three times more engagement than links.

The trend is likely to accelerate as younger audiences now prefer visual-first social networks. People are wired to notice, remember, learn from, and respond emotionally to visuals. MDG (2018), an online marketing research organization’s data shows that:

  • People remember only 10% of information three days after hearing it, on average; adding a picture can improve recall to 65%
  • Nearly two-thirds of people say they’re visual learners
  • Consumers are significantly more likely to think favourably of ads that emphasize photography, over ads that emphasize text

A shift from ‘textocentrism’ to ‘visual imagery’

A significant shift from “textocentrism” to “visual imagery” has been observed due to the invention of an unprecedented number of digital and electronic tools and technologies, software and hardware, changes in processes and procedures, techniques and methods in different academic discipline.

With the emergence of visual anthropology as a sub-discipline of anthropology, the use of various forms of visuals in partnership with artists, painters, photographers, film-makers, documentary makers, photo-illustrators, cartoonists, the “visual anthropology” itself has now grounded a strong footing both as a subject of the study of text and image. In visual studies, images are as inevitable as sounds, smells, textures, and tastes, words, or any other aspect of culture and society. 

The explosion of the internet, social media, and technology has led many to question whether print/text can compete with visual communication in the forms of figures, info-graphics, maps, diagrams, drawings, art and paintings, designs, pictograms, cartoons, videos, photos (panoramic), animations, blogs, podcasts, PowerPoint, and other imagery.

According to Christopher Penny (2017), a visual anthropology professor of UCL: “Each of these imagery is clearly both a ‘technical process’ and ‘cultural practice.’ But it analyzes and usually stresses one aspect rather than another. We need to explore what is at stake in the balance.”

The increasing popularity of social media and visual imagery

Facebook, the largest social media platform in the world, has 2.4 billion users. Other social media platforms, including Youtube and WhatsApp, also have more than one billion users each. These numbers are huge -- there are 7.7 billion people in the world, with at least 3.5 billion of us online. This means social media platforms are used by one-in-three people in the world, and more than two-thirds of all internet users.

Social media has changed the world. The rapid and vast adoption of these technologies is changing how we find partners, how we access information from the news, and how we organize to demand political change. The aggregate numbers mask a great deal of heterogeneity across platforms -- some social media sites are much more popular than others among specific population groups.

Digital technology, computer-mediated communication, and visual imagery

Digital media is connecting people one-to-one and one-to-many in entirely new ways, enabling users to maintain friendships across time and distance, creating new interest groups, and enabling those who are socially or physically isolated to connect with like-minded people.

Klaus Schwab, in his famous book Fourth Industrial Revolution (2016), mentions that one of the greatest (and most observable) effects of digitization is the emergence of the “me-centred” society; a process of individuation and emergence of new forms of belonging and community.

According to him, the “Internet of things (IoT),” sometimes called “internet of all things,” a major part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, can be described as a relationship between things (products, services, places, et.) and people. The high availability, low costs, and geographically neutral aspects of digital media also enable greater interaction across social, economic, cultural, political, religious, and ideological boundaries.

Nowadays, more people are getting access to computers, be it via a computer with internet connection or a smartphone with 3G/4G or services in the cloud. Looking at the speed of technological change in recent times, we can expect that, in another few years, three-quarters of the world’s population will have regular access to the web.

Regular access to the internet and information will no longer be a benefit of developed economies, but a basic right just like electricity or clean water. Wireless technologies require fewer infrastructures than many other utilities (electricity, roads, and water), so they will very likely become accessible much quicker than the others. 

Hence, anyone from any country will be able to access and interact with information from the opposite corner of the world. Content creation and dissemination through various visual forms and virtual platforms will become easier than ever before.

A study of social media, visual imagery, and ‘netnography’ in Bangladesh

During the Covid-19 and post-Covid-19 new normal situation, “netnography” and participatory digital research methodologies, including digital story-telling, photo-elicitation/photo-narrative, photovoice/photo-novella, interactive multimedia as new media ethnography, participatory digital archival research, and participatory geographical information systems (GIS) have become popular techniques of doing research.

Many anthropologists, social scientists, and market researchers are now suggesting “netnography” as alternative research practice. Understanding the images of the day is a very “netnographic” activity. Emphasizing the importance of understanding images, symbols, photographs, and videos is a key “netnographic” frontier illuminated by the “netnographic sensibility.”

According to Kozinets (2015), “technology-mediated interactions may navigate specific platforms. In addition, if behaviours and interactions operate across multiple virtual spaces and technologies, this also brings into question how temporal dimensions of internet‐mediated behaviour are accounted for in sampling, data collection, and analysis."

The study of visual imagery is important for conceptualization and analysis of visual text and context. The development of visual studies has opened up new ways to present our large-scale fieldwork data not only in the form of a “written report” or “ethnography,” but can also make a documentary out of fieldwork data by using various types of visual tools.

Until the very recent past, visual research in the field of social sciences in Bangladesh had not been developed or even explored.

Covid-19 has given us a good learning to understand how important it is to critically look at the different forms of visuals, know what role all these visual forms and virtual platforms are playing in society, and what impacts all these visuals have on the community and society, to develop a skill to use these wide ranges of visual data and analyze them as part of different academic disciplinary practices in Bangladesh as an alternative form of research.

Professor Dr Saifur Rashid teaches anthropology at Dhaka University.

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