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;) Are Emoticons and Other Image-Based Communications Changing the Way Our Brains Work?

Memes, twitpics, emoticons, photojamming and glitter text may be altering the way we process communication.

There is a cultural anxiety about the lack of face-to-face communication these days; a serious concern that with our preference for email, texting, instant messaging, tweeting -- anything besides actually talking to a person -- our capacity for verbal communication may be changing.

But a new form of communication could be compensating, and in the process, changing the way our brains process language. Limited by time and space, virtual communication often favors images to text, the earliest form of this being the emoticon. People can communicate simply by stringing together punctuation, sending pictures via cell phone, and by tweeting pictures. This type of image-based communication is becoming increasingly prevalent, spawning online spaces in which people communicate primarily or exclusively through images.

One of the first of these online spaces is the Web site 4chan, where memes like Pedobear originated. The site is a collection of topical message boards similar to the more common text-based boards. But on 4chan, users converse with images. This type of interaction, aside from changing the way we communicate, can change the way our brains are engaged during communication. Though both images and text engage visual sections of the brain, text also engages language areas. But if the image is the language, we could be engaging our brains in a whole new way.

Alonso Ayala, 22, logs onto, an image-based chat room, every day from his bedroom in Pachuca, Mexico. He first checks to see if any of his friends are online, then sits back a bit to get a feel for the conversation. Sometimes it’s about video games, sometimes it’s about music, often times pizza is involved. Once he has a sense of what’s going on, Ayala goes to his own reserve of pictures that he has culled from various Web sites (mostly Tumblr blogs) and joins the conversation. Ayala is a graphic designer who has always paid close attention to the visual, and this is largely what draws him to While users have the option to chat with text, most of the conversation occurs via images that users can upload from their computers, the Internet, or snap with their webcams and share instantly.

Glitter images and glitter text tend to be popular on, perhaps because of a nostalgia for vintage MySpace. When users had the freedom to edit the HTML of their profile pages, it encouraged creativity and resulted in sometimes arresting, sometimes seizure-inducing, but always interesting and notable visual content. The overall aesthetic of the site and of the images posted has a nostalgic quality; not just for the MySpace era, but for earlier Internet times, like the Geocities period, when images online were simple and often grainy and pixilated.

“No one cares about the quality of the images,” says Ayala. “Really, the more lo-fi, the better.”

Despite the apparent nostalgia, users are not stuck in the past. Much of the images that are “dumped” offer commentary on modern pop culture. Recently, a user posted a gif of a sassy Wlllow Smith with the caption, “gurl bye.” Quickly following that post, another user took that image and posted it next to a picture of Perez Hilton with a black eye. Other users joined in with their own black-eyed celebrities. Then users took pictures of themselves with fists clenched and posted them alongside the beaten-up celebrities. This is typically how conversation occurs on Though often dark, absurd, or graphic, there is always the sense that it is all very tongue-in-cheek.

Before sites like, similar visual communities of people with compatible aesthetics had been forming on Tumblr. Members of these communities would “like” each other’s posts and reblog each other. But the pace at which this was happening didn’t allow for this type of sharing to be more natural and free-form. Ryder Ripps of the Web site Internet Archaeology realized that a lot of what was happening on Tumblr wasn’t exactly blogging or even microblogging, but more of a rapid stream of photo posts. It made more sense to Ripps to create a space for this interaction to happen in real time. He collaborated with Scott Ostler of MIT Exhibit and Tim Baker of Delicious, and was born.