Saturday, September 17, 2016

Flash Non-Fiction Friday: Social Media Photos Are Destroying Creativity

How Photos on Social Media are Destroying Creativity
Jennifer E. Miller 

Admittedly, I haven't kept up with fiction writing this last week. Instead, I have been working hard to keep up with my Shutterfly photo albums. My final Creative Writing class at SCC begins on Monday and I have a feeling I'll be busy with that. Anyhow, I've chosen to write about something I've taken notice to, and subsequently got me thinking, recently: photos on social media and how they are destroying creativity.

My news feed is littered with short recaps from friends about what they did over the weekend or afternoon or hour. That's what social media is about anyway, right? The ease of sharing our lives with others. Things or experiences bring us joy and, naturally, we want to spread the cheer. I have noticed that, accompanied with the seemingly mindless status updates, are gobs of photos. Photos of everything. "Took the kids to the park" has to have a photo of kids playing the equipment. "Oh man, what a workout!" is above a gym photo with a sweaty person flexing their muscles. Yes, the visual snapshot brings your words to life. But, most of the time, there aren't many details as to why or how the subject(s) in the photo do that. We have become lazy and allowed the photos to do the talking for us. Using photos to enhance our words minimizes creativity.

I'm just as guilty as the next person for posting photos on social media. It's fun and occasionally I like to sound off about something exciting, funny, or interesting that's happened in my life. However, I'm also a writer who understands that writing is an art, not just jotting down words. Finding the right words to convey a message can be challenging. Imagine a conversation where you're trying to explain (anything) to someone and your voice trails off because you just can't find the exact word to describe it. Writing is similar; words get lost. In addition, a writer can't as easily put tone of voice into the text, so details are important. They are the fundamentals of creativity. It allows the reader to build a scene, using their imagination, to bring the story (or message, idea, etc.) to life. But when a photo is introduced along with the text, it eliminates that creative step for both the writer and the reader.

Take my example "Oh, man, what a workout!" Imagine those words as a status update with a cell phone photo underneath of a sweaty person standing in front of machines or free weights. The subject is smiling with pride. The text is vague, so the subject/writer is compensating for lack of creativity with the photo. But, we get the gist. Someone exercised hard at the gym. The line "what a workout!" gives us the impression that the subject put in extra effort. That's fine and dandy, but how did they do that? Did they increase their weight load? Set a new personal record for a mile run? Took a week off from the gym and got their butt kicked? All of the above, perhaps? We just see the end result: I exercised hard, yet I'm still smiling. Basically, it's just another update that people will scroll past, noticed or unnoticed. Write some interesting details and a photo wouldn't even need to be included.

Another example of the loss of creativity, would be a cell phone snapshot of a tropical beach captioned "Hawaii is amazing!!!" First off, everyone needs to stop overusing the word amazing. It's become cliche and has no authenticity or meaning to it anymore. When everything, from your pet dog jumping through a ring of fire to the way those brandy-laced chocolate covered strawberries taste, gets labeled as "amazing," the word looses value. Explain how and why those things are amazing. "I'm having an amazing time in Hawaii because the sound of the breeze rustling through palm leaves is soothing." Now, doesn't that conjure up a feeling or state of mind in addition to an image? Yes, yes, Jennifer. But why use all that fluffy description when I can just include a photo so people can see what I'm talking about? Because the photo shuts down the creativity element. It's like forever reading children's picture books and not graduating to novels. Social media is conditioning our brains to rely on images to understand text. If you wish to tell a story with photographs, learn the art of photography; it's more than just tapping your phone's camera function. In the case of my example above, by including how and why the image made you feel amazing, connects you to the scene. Using your imagination, or creativity powerhouse, evokes creativity and imagination in others.

I suppose photos do substantiate what we say. Anyone can claim whatever they like. If we don't have photos to back up those claims, how would people know it really happened? Well, they don't. Your character should already be vouched for by displaying actions of honesty and integrity. Duh. That's stuff we learned in Kindergarten. I could easily say, "I won the lotto." Even though I'm an honest person, I'm sure nearly everyone I know would respond, "Oh yeah? Prove it." That's when I'd present a photo of me holding one of those oversize checks, like the Publisher's Clearing House winners. Now I've backed up my claim. Take the Hawaii example. If you simply said "Hawaii is amazing" most folks would agree with you. Hawaii is neat place compared to the continental USA, because its topography and culture are unique. But that's just a statement and doesn't personally connect anyone to the situation, so a photo generally accompanies vague statements or claims. Here is where I'm pointing out the lack of creativity: a snapshot with an open-ended statement doesn't allow me to rationalize your reasoning for why Hawaii is (cringe) amazing to you. When images are conveniently provided, it doesn't allow me to do any creative thinking. Now, someone who writes "I'm having an amazing time in Hawaii because the sound of the breeze rustling through palm leaves is soothing. I can't wait to show you my photos!" Oooooo! I'm visualizing myself digging my toes into the soft sand, the waves swooshing, and dancing palm trees nearby. I feel relaxed and I wonder if my friend's photos will live up to my conjured up images of Hawaii. The anticipation from the text allows my creativity to create visualizations. If I just saw a photo captioned "Hawaii is amazing!" I'd simply mentally shrug my shoulders and think, nice.

If we have the technology available for creating images and sharing them with the touch of a button, why not use it? Before the invention of cameras, people had no choice but use words to explain and describe things. Perhaps they could purchase a postcard of an artist's rendition of whatever the subject may be. So, unless you were Michelangelo, you used words. Postal letters, at one time, were the most advanced form of communication which, of course, required the art of writing to adequately engage the recipient's imagination to connect themselves to your message. It forced the writer to use details and specifics to sound interesting.

There is one last point I'd like to throw out there about social media photos: selfies are stupid! Okay, the random one here or there isn't a big deal, but haven't we all been subjected to self-obsessed person who insists on visually documenting themselves in every situation? Here I am, on a hike with my face in the photo because I most certainly will enhance the already beautiful surroundings. Yes, it will. It enhances your photo with the impression that you value yourself above all else. Then the next day, from the same person we may see: I got a haircut and it's fabulous, don't you think? Sure, but it's just an excuse to take a photo of yourself. A simple statement of "I'm diggin' my new trendy 'do" will do. Then again, it's just a haircut. Why is it necessary to make sure the internet knows about it? If the photograph eliminates creativity, and a selfie displays selfishness, then you are just cheating yourself out of finding your own inner creativity because you are too focused on obtaining attention.

While the above scenarios argue in favor of the decline of creativity when using snapshots, I don't think photos or social media are going away. They will play a large role in our virtual lives for years to come. I continue to stand by my belief that social media photos are limiting creativity because not enough time is devoted to connecting our hearts and minds to the scenario in question. Too often photos and selfies attached with quick notes and incorrect punctuation and grammar are how information is relayed. There is no desire to use effort and write out experiences or details if a camera does the talking. We should encourage everyone to treat social media as a journal to document detailed experiences, rather than just showing off with a parade of photos. Stories are important. Someday future generations will look at a photo of grandma in Hawaii and ask, "I wonder what she was feeling?"

Copyrighted 2016 by Jennifer E. Miller

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