In 2017 alone, 1.3 trillion photos (1012) are expected to be taken, compared to around 90 billion in 2000 and 350 billion in 2010. Every day, 350 million photos are shared on Facebook and 80 million on Instagram. Every minute, 300 hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube… These figures illustrate the dizzying pace at which images are created in our society.
The explosion in the number of images produced has changed our contemporary visual culture. Today, photographing our cat sitting in a funny position or filming our child’s first day at school and then sharing these images is entirely commonplace and normal, although this behaviour would have appeared strange, or even inappropriate, only a decade ago.
Smartphones, the Swiss Army knives of daily life, have changed the way we behave. By combining a camera/video camera, photo retouching apps and an internet connection, they have generated an explosion in the number of images produced and shared. This has led to the emergence of what could be called the “connected image”: a system in which the image can essentially be instantly modified, shared and stored.
The connected image frees images from their physical form and dissolves the border between photography and video. It calls into question the distinction between producers and consumers of images, as most people regularly play both roles. Once connected, the image is no longer confined to a restricted family circle but could potentially be viewed by anyone. As a result, personal boundaries are redefined or at least questioned.
How images have changed
Parents today create hundreds of images of their children every month, as many as their own parents produced for an entire childhood. Now free of the costs inherent in camera film and video cassettes, parents are encouraged to create increasing numbers of images and to capture moments that people would never have dreamed of recording twenty years ago. It is no longer unusual for parents to film or take photos during the birth of their child, for example.
Phenomena such as unboxing (videos of people opening various packages) or foodporn (millions of photos of enticingly styled food) are the products of this transformation. Once reserved for significant events, photos and videos are now the media of everyday life, capturing the ordinary (our meal) as least as often as the exceptional (our wedding). Connected images play a role in this transformation: in just ten years, what can be captured has been completely redefined.
Modifying the status of the image
Connected images are everywhere, but above all, they are shared. Social media such as Facebook or Instagram are overflowing with users’ personal images. Connected images have changed the definition of shareable images. Although it may appear innocuous, this change has in fact contributed to the redefinition of public/private boundaries.
Moreover, connected images have inspired large numbers of people to want to record their experiences visually. Strolling around a well-known monument is a sure-fire way of running into vast swathes of tourists … with their backs to the monument they are meant to be visiting, taking selfies. The image has become an end in itself, alongside the actual experience. It is at least as important to have a photo of ourselves in front of the Mona Lisa as to have admired it “for real”.
The individual as content producer
In many ways, an experience that is not captured (and/or not shared) is today perceived as not lived. Parents of teenagers watch every day as their children live their lives on social networks, to the point of looking at a beautiful landscape solely through the screen of their smartphone. Like commercial brands or media stars, individuals consider themselves as content producers. They want to regularly produce new content to publish on social media in order to maintain their online presence. So they carefully choose images likely to please their “followers”.
Transforming the object of the experience
For many people, their follower comments have become an instrument for evaluating their own experiences, and receiving large numbers of positive comments has become a satisfying experience in its own right. This transforms the actual event: eating an ice cream in the middle of summer involves both consumption (tasty and refreshing) and production (of contents shared on social media). An ice cream that is delicious but not attractively presented may draw negative comments and could ultimately have a negative impact on a restaurant’s image. This new reality implies that brands must adapt their product offering: the packaging of the product, the attractiveness of the meal, etc. The consumption of images has also evolved. While video gamers clearly enjoy actual gaming, millions of people now watch videos of other gamers playing and commenting on their moves. Similarly, to understand the millions of viewers attracted by videos of cats stuck in cardboard boxes, we need to take into account the way in which connected images have transformed the consumer object.
Adapting marketing strategy
This permanent connection of images might appear innocuous, but its effects on individuals’ lifestyles and on businesses are considerable. Everything experienced by the individual can be captured and shared. This means that the brands can no longer ignore the content produced by their consumers. The brand Ferrari, for example, has more than 11 million photos tagged on Instagram compared to “only” 830 photos published on its official account. At the other end of the spectrum, American Airlines was forced to apologise after a video showing a mother in tears being bullied by the airline’s employees was widely circulated on social media.
The development of connected images, and social media more generally, reduces brands’ control over their image but increases the perceived sincerity of the message and the extent of the company’s product content. Brands no longer need to produce all of their content but should instead strive to become curators of the content produced by their consumers and fans – provided that they meet their customers’ expectations in terms of quality, because every failure or problematic experience is likely to be documented by images published on social media.
For these reasons, marketing cannot (or can no longer) be a simple communication and product embellishment exercise, but must reflect a genuine customer orientation viewing the proposed experience from the customer’s perspective, in every sense of the word!
As a professor, I mainly teach branding, consumer behaviour, sociology and the anthropology of consumption. As a researcher, I work on brand communities and the relationships between ethnicity and consumption, consumer resistance and shopping experiences. My research interests concern, among other things, brands and their status in our culture, lifestyles in a connected society, consumers passions and the relationships between ethnicity and consumption. I am particularly interested in consumer social movements, the construction of collective consumer identity, sociology, anthropology, visual and qualitative methods.
- Rokka, J. (2017). How selfies can build – and destabilise – brands. Knowledge@emlyon, May 11th, 2017.
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- Pagani, M. (2016). Brand Love. Knowledge@emlyon, January 6th, 2016.
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