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Visual storytelling in the digital age

By Evan Wade / July 23, 2014

Visual storytelling in the digital age

Though the ability to transmit information with our vocal chords does a good job of separating us from lesser species on this floating space-rock, we humans are also pretty great when it comes to visual storytelling. The knack makes sense: from cave paintings to digitally distributed documentaries, we’ve been finding new ways to visually talk about our lives for something like 40,000 years now.

Today, the emphasis in that statement is very much on our lives. As we noted in our article on the quantified self, people have been taking stats on various aspects of existence since they’ve had stats to take. Smartphones and wearable devices, and their related applications, just make it easier. And while visual storytelling apps are only tangentially related to their quantified cousins, the basic idea behind both is the same: curating your life and sharing it with others.

The visual (and social) edge

Publishers and others who make content for money have long known about the power of multimedia. In the old days, that often meant putting a picture on the top fold of a newspaper or giving a particularly powerful shot a full-page in a magazine. Even back then, readers’ eyes would glaze over at the mere sight of a wall-o-text. The mentality has, of course, carried over to the Web, making today’s content more photo- and video-focused than ever.

But that’s far from the only earth-shaking change technology has made to the structure of publishing. With their cameras and GPS sensors and video/voice recorders, smartphones are like the end-all, be-all of personal documentation. Giving people online outlets to share their photos with friends–then monetizing those outlets–is just the natural progression. The days of the passive viewer are no more. Whether you like it or not (or even realize it), users have become active, content-producing participants, turning social media outlets into the information age’s version of money-printing cable channels.

The trick to succeeding in this newly-defined social space is (of course) modern technology. According to Designer and Photographer Charles Henry, “Visual storytelling apps that concentrate on the phone will thrive. It’s not enough to launch a website or tablet-only app… Developers need to create a compact smartphone experience for displaying content, if their goal is to engage users.”

It’s certainly a good first step. With some experts predicting 1.75 billion total smartphone users by the end of 2014, it makes sense that any mobile app dev would want to take a smartphone-first approach where possible. But beyond that, people are more likely to capture interesting content when they’re out and about – and they’re are also a lot more likely to have access to their phones than, say, a camera-equipped tablet or a laptop.

In that sense, the user experience is even more important for visual storytelling apps than it usually would be. Designing or editing any sort of video is tricky. Smartphones are not computers, and treating them like they are is a sure-fire way to make users not like your product. This excellent Fast Co. piece on Vine and Snapchat (the latter of which recently entered the visual storytelling realm with their Stories feature) gives one great example: Though the iOS version of iMovie is “a remarkable mobile clone” of the original, the author says it “feels archaic” as compared to newer, mobile-optimized software.

Despite all this, Henry believes, the visual storytelling format may not be done evolving until the technology behind it has grown a little more. “[While the iPhone camera is great,” he says, “it can’t compete with the optics of great glass,” such as the lenses from respected camera manufacturers like Canon. He also says it’d make sense for visual storytelling apps to come as a basic, built-in feature for digital cameras – something we’ll undoubtedly see more and more of as the Internet of Things matures.

The current market

For now, the advancements we have are plenty to keep visual storytelling aficionados happy. The difference often comes down to the platform. Take a look at Snapchat. Though the company got famous on disposable “snaps,” which last one to ten seconds and probably account for the vast majority of the world’s “selfie” photos, the above-mentioned Stories feature is the key to their future. With Stories, users can combine videos and pics they’ve taken throughout a given day and post it for their Snapchat friends to see. In typical Snapchat fashion, however, friends are only able to see one of these videos a day.

If anything, the move shows just how important visual storytelling is to the future of social media. Though the once-a-day caveat is rather “Snapchatesque” (is that a word?), giving users the option to build a narrative thread between the pics and videos they share could be replicated by any number of companies.

The sudden takeoff of Storehouse, another visual storytelling app, also says a lot about visual storytelling’s staying power. The app, which already carries serious street cred thanks to former Apple designer Mark Kawano’s involvement, allows users to put photos, videos, and texts together to create stories on any number of topics. Storehouse’s official site has user-submitted pieces on Brooklyn nightlife and street art in LA, to name a couple. In any event, these stories often look more like expanded blog posts than something that came from a smartphone app. Depending on your purposes when creating a piece, that can be a pro or con.

Storehouse  visual storytelling

Steller, whose approach to the visual storytelling game may best be described as “Storehouse on steroids,” does a little bit of everything. Though the software arguably gives users the most control creating their narratives–tweaking them with various video/image sizes, layouts, and so on–you don’t need the official app to view the stories users put together. Steller makes it possible to share stories via a link, embedded into a blog, or even pinned to a Pinterest board.


Then there are the tweeners. Apps like SpeakingPhoto do feature their own, internal way of viewing stories (called SPOTs), but also allow users to post their content directly to sites like Facebook and Twitter. For users who like to tell longer stories with their images–or even just provide a little more context to the pics they do post–the multimedia approach gives them more flexibility to add their own creative flourishes to their submissions.


Telling a story, the smartphone way

Though all these apps go about things in a different way, the basic idea is the same across the board: giving users the chance to tell a larger story than any one video, image, or text update can. Whether they’re telling the evolving story of their everyday lives through Snapchat or putting something together with a little more editorial control via a service like Storehouse, the sudden rise in popularity and quality the related apps have seen go a long way towards cementing visual storytelling as the next big thing in social media.

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