Social Photos: When a picture is worth 140 characters

Image: Download Squad

Over the last weeks we have witnessed the peaceful demonstration in Egypt that overthrew President Mubarak’s regime. In the last few days we watched the protests it has inspired in YemenIran, Bahrain and Algeria. While I have written about the contributory role of social media in these revolutions, it is also worth noting how we have experienced these events through various media and what it means for the future of social media.

On one hand You Tube videos have provided critical transparency as to what was happening on the ground in real time in Egypt. On the other, a gallery of powerful and singular images shot by media professionals and citizens armed with cell phones, has memorialized each important step on the road towards a more democratic Egypt. These images served as powerful distillations of complex issues and emotionally charged events, yet have they also affected how we will share information in the future?

I ask this question is the context of the sudden rise in popularity of photo sharing apps such as Instagram and Path. As mass media news outlets such as CNN or Al Jazeera English have increasingly incorporated citizen-generated media into their content, and as social media is becoming mainstream for both brands and consumers, how we prefer to consume information is changing. Will the evolution from the written letter to email to SMS to twitter continue to photo sharing apps that let pictures speaks for themselves?

As such social media exchanges would more accurately reflect the multi-screen experience that is becoming the norm for those who spend much of their time on the web. Effectively sharing could become a tireless game of ‘Snap!’ in which we exchange images and emotionally connect when striking common ground.

Obviously there are some who say that photo sharing apps are a fad that they do little more than what already exists through tools like TwitPic but enhanced by social networking into a simple to use app. Yet as demands on our time get greater, as both traditional and social media trade in real-time images and content, and as our appetite for digesting information at pace increases, I can only imagine photo sharing apps will continue to fill a growing need.

In short, how we consumer information is as important as what we consume. As the protests throughout the Arab world have shown us, the value of real-time content is the transparency, authenticity and accountability it affords. While long form content will always exist, I suspect it won’t belong before consumers and citizens expect nothing less than immediacy from the content they consume on a daily basis because of the very values.

What this means for brands, governments and even non-profits is daunting. Institutional inertia will collide with consumer expectations as we experience the life of others as a series of screen grabs. Institutions of all types must rethink how they communicate with their audience and reorganize their structures to make such immediacy possible. The key to success is being clearly defined in the first place so that they can respond authentically consistently, and remain relevant no matter how their customers chose to engage.

Do you think photo sharing apps will take off? Or have we reached a point of intolerance at which people need less information rather than not more?