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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 dump.fm, 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 dump.fm. 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 dump.fm, 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, dump.fm 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 dump.fm. Though often dark, absurd, or graphic, there is always the sense that it is all very tongue-in-cheek.

Before sites like dump.fm, 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 dump.fm was born.

“What I enjoy most about the Internet is the possibility for discovery -- not only stalking people you kind of know or people you think you want to know, like on Facebook, but also discovering brand-new people and exciting new content which you have little control of mediating,” says Ripps.

Though no direct studies have been completed on this particular form of image-based communication, related studies have shown that brains are engaged in distinctly different ways when one is presented with images as opposed to text. Todd Watson, professor of psychology at Lewis and Clark College, conducted a study at Stony Brook University in which participants were presented with words as well as visual representations of those words to measure brain activity when processing the two. They were shown a series of these word-picture pairs, with either the word or the picture appearing individually on a screen before them. In the first part of the experiment, the word was designated as the target, and the participants were asked to keep a mental count of the number of times the target appeared. In the second part of the experiment, the picture was the target. In the first part of the experiment, the pictures produced brain waves similar, but smaller in amplitude, to those produced by the words, but this was not true for the second part.

These results can be explained by previous theories holding that words and pictures are processed differently by the brain. These theories argue that words and pictures are processed by distinct but interconnected systems that may, but do not always, activate the same sections of the brain. In the case of communities like dump.fm, the distinction between imagery and verbal information is less clear, since the images are the primary form of communication. This could make for a case in which images are processed as words or groups of words.

In smaller spaces like 3fram.es, users create gifs using three frames captured via webcam. Ayala uses this site specifically to create gifs to later post on dump.fm. But this platform is very basic in that it has a narrow scope. It’s basically just a gallery of three-frame gifs that users can “like,” and the interaction does not go beyond that. The recently launched canv.as, from the minds behind the website 4chan, operates on a similar premise to dump.fm, but it is more organized and lacks the stream of consciousness dump.fm is known for. On canv.as, users post images and alter images posted by others just like on dump.fm, but canv.as is neatly organized by categories like 4chan, and the homepage displays the site’s most popular and top-rated images.

Early on, dump.fm was said to have the potential to be the next 4chan, but the two are structured in very different ways and dump.fm has yet to reach the level of influence that 4chan has. At only 12,000 registered users, the community is still small. But it has already come across similar hurdles to those encountered by 4chan. Last year, one of the most popular images on the site, an image of a businessman from iStockphoto, known as the “I don’t get it” guy on the site, was pulled after the photo site threatened to sue. But when there’s such a rapid and steady flow of unattributed images, it’s difficult to pinpoint copyright violations.

“I think this model of suing people for intellectual property is really old world,” says Ripps. “A new world model would be to figure out how this haphazard occurrence of hundreds of people from an unexpected audience appreciating, and making new things with your work, can be translated into money.”

Popular website I Can Has Cheezburger was inspired by an image posted to 4chan. The image of a cat with the caption “I Can Has Cheezburger?” was posted to 4chan on a Saturday, or Caturday, the day 4chan users post captioned pictures of cats (lolcats). This single image was responsible for the creation of a widely popular and profitable Web site. Just a few months after its launch, I Can Has Cheezburger was sold to investors for a reported $2 million.

With more and more spaces cropping up online in which the written, er, typed, word is old hat, it will be interesting to see what kinds of communities are formed and how these communities interact. Time will tell how image-based interaction alters our communication and the way our brains process that communication, and those with the right instincts may even be able to capitalize on this new language.

Blanca Méndez is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She regularly contributes to the Latin American music blog Club Fonograma.
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