In a world of abundant information and careful curation, it’s not surprising that the average attention span has dropped from 12 minutes to five seconds (Vidyarthi, 2011). Though it’s hard to determine that the widespread use of the internet and social media are responsible for dwindling focus, or if shorter attention spans are more common at all, it is apparent that these technologies have changed the way information is consumed (Gailey, 2013). Ultimately, publishing has broken free of its traditional containers and is seeking context to allow audiences to find, interact, and ultimately consume its content (O’Leary, 2012). Within these interactions, especially between image and language, rhetoric is notably a part of understanding. Creating a type of visual rhetoric, images within listicles and other online platforms provide an interesting challenge and ultimately showcase that content influences, and even shapes, the context of the image skewing or altering the meaning of its original context, as intended by the creator.
As a society, the majority of individuals are constantly connected to each other, networks, or devices. Whether it’s through a computer, tablet, or smart phone, most people are accessing information constantly. Because of the containers information is bound by—different screen aspect ratios, varying displays—there is a trend to make it as easy to consume as possible, especially through visual organization (Pope, 2013). Ultimately, this has resulted in information transforming into the most truncated version—from long-form article to chunked text, and from novel into list.
Though lists are not new, there are several sites like Buzzfeed, Thought Catalog, Bored Panda that have proliferated this form of information online. Almost any topic, from breaking news to fashion tips, can be found in a numbered, ranked, or ordered lists. More commonly referred to as a listicle, “an informal term for an article made up of a series of facts, tips, quotations, or examples organized around a particular theme” (Nordquist, n.d.), short attention spans and busy, habitual schedules are satisfied through the easily digestible, pre-chunked texts with a definite end.
Essentially, lists and other ranked or numbered articles “enumerate the innumerable variety of the world and give us a sense of mastery over our environment,” (Thompson, 2013) showing that lists allow us to put a different type of publishing container around a chaotic abundance of information in order for us to more easily consume the content within. As Thompson (2013) outlines in his article exposing our love/hate relationship with lists, this way of conveying information eases readability and understanding overall and ultimately facilitates remembering because of visual fluency, that is, the ability and ease of processing an image or information (Larson, 2012). Lists are aesthetically engineered for the reading mind as they strike a balance between specificity and vagueness while appealing to time pressures that many individuals face. Lists are “simply a more effortless way to consume information” (Konnikova, 2013).
Listicles also take advantage of our desire for variety in our reading experiences, moving away from walls of text. Breaking up the field with numbers or bullets showcases difference in an article, which can lead us to see that something doesn’t fit the normal pattern, which prompts us to refocus (Konnikova, 2013). Images embedded within listciles further this differentiation and appeal to our tendency to categorize information even more, creating an increasingly intuitive reading process (Konnikova, 2013). This shows that we use the context of the text provided to shape our reading of an image. In my opinion, an image is often taken out of one context (the original context intended by the creator) and put into a different one (the listicle), in a way forcing the image to convey a different connotation, potentially skewing an audience’s perception.
These images, when placed within a particular framework, like that of a categorized or themed listicle, take on a different meaning than if they were merely placed in front of you on a blank sheet of paper. This showcases that there is no naïve reading of an image. Rather, readings are derived out of our own experiences or the contexts in which they are presented. Even though these photos demonstrate content on their own without the aid of text, context, which can be text or container or both, ultimately shapes how they are perceived (O’Leary, 2012). This context is generally created from individual experiences and social cues. The text placed around the image leads readers into a certain context that they may have not created on their own. That said, no image could exist without resting within a scheme of interpretation. As Roland Barthes notes, there isn’t such a thing as a pure image as no viewer is able to receive it completely objectively. In my opinion though, the creator can, and often does, have an intended meaning behind an image or photographer, which can be perceived differently by different viewers.
Context, an essential part of communication, is related to the ideas of rhetoric, which is fundamentally concerned with using symbols to communicate (Foss, 2005). Though commonly thought of linguistically, rhetoric can be applied visually as well. A newer concept, emerging more readily as a field of study in 1970 (Foss, 2005), it is apparent that images are read in the same way as words, and these images provide meaning in a similar way. Fundamentally, an image is able to communicate a message through sensory expression of cultural meaning (“Visual Rhetoric,” n.d.), though this message relies on context to move from the arbitrary into reality.
Visual rhetoric, more specifically, is described as how visual images communicate meaning as opposed to aural or verbal communication (“Visual Rhetoric,” n.d.). In fact, any image or representation in open to interpretation, influenced by a variety of connotation and denotations that each viewer imposes. Though social context and cues come into play, other factors inform the perception of an image. For example, if you were to look at an image with a caption, you would be taking in the linguistic message alongside the visual message. Without the caption, only the pure image is left (Barthes, 1977), though this idea of purity can be argued as arbitrary as even the creator uses their own contexts to shape the content. Stripping the image of text, we impose our own context, or in the case of listicles, the context the author gives us. A listicle starts with text as a basis where a topic is chosen and a certain number of facts or bullets are added. Then, images are found and added to the text illustrating the listicle’s idea, though perhaps departing from the creator’s original idea of intention. In this sense, the text adds fresh information to the image (Barthes, 1977), but in a way that changes the original meaning and audience perception. Though the photos generally seem to be used to create more visual interest in an already pared down article, this type of tactic brings up the question of what is the true message and what is the perceived context?
According to Barthes (1977), text can guide the reader through the images message causing them to avoid some aspects of the message and receive others. This meaning changing shows that context can fundamentally change content.
Four Examples of Rhetoric and Context in Photos
- The Infamous 2011 Vancouver Riot Photo: In the Bored Panda List, “20 Interesting Facts About Love,” a photo of two young people kissing on the ground amidst riot police was used to illustrate the fact “Love Is All That Really Matters.” With this caption (and ultimately context), the reader is “forced” into identifying that the message of this image is one of romance. Without the caption, the meaning is far less clear, and ultimately, the true meaning behind this story is not as romantic as it may seem. Rather, as exposed after this image had gone viral (CBC News, 2011), the male in the photo was trying to calm the female down after witnessing the stress of the 2011 Vancouver Riot. Though this could be perceived as a testimony of romance, the context was forced by placing the image into prescribed container.
- Sailor Kiss in Times Square: Similar to the story above, this photo from 1945, though not explicitly in a listicle at the time, was made to seem like a story of passion and a reuniting of lovers. The true story? In the midst of celebration, the sailor pictured was spontaneously grabbing every woman and kissing her. In the listicle linked in title, this photo is classified as one of 10 war photos that “changed the world forever.” Here, even the title is skewing the context.
- Brazzers Meme: This meme bases its message off associations with the adult entertainment company Brazzers. By superimposing the “Brazzers” logo on images, the context is changed quickly from a wholesome high school image, to one that can be perceived as raunchy. Based on cultural meaning, those familiar with Brazzers identify the connotations of this sign and change the meaning, playing with the rhetoric of the image.
- Deceptive Weather on Social Media: Natural disasters automatically attract media attention—so much so that hoaxes are often created surrounding them. This example of real and “not real” images (with the “not real” image deemed as such by the source as it is an image created for a movie) from Hurricaine Sandy show that, placed within the rhetoric of a storm, an audience can be lead to believe that something vaguely similar to actual happenings is a reality. Skewing the meaning through captions and hashtags perpetuates this false context.
Even this tongue-in-cheek listicle here is shaped by the context of this essay. The title gives the reader and idea of what to expect and how to further chunk the already parsed information. This list of examples acts as an example in and of itself of the interplay between listicles and visual rhetoric.
After looking at examples of images taking on different meanings through the contextualization of a list, I started thinking about other examples of images fitting an idea. Photo essays are one more traditional example. In a photo essay, a photojournalist tells a story through pictures imposing their own rhetorical perceptions within the narrative. Much like the online lists seen today, photo can be given new or different meaning through context in a photo essay. Unlike today’s listicles, the photo essay is generally from a specific individual’s point of view, or framed through the context of a news organization or magazine—someone or thing that already has a distinct voice of perspective. This makes it more of a narrative or recounting of events from a journalistic perspective, whereas listicles online with images are generally from no specific point of view allowing them to become “general” information rather than framed through a personal lens which allows the reader to see that a certain slant to the story may be apparent.
Ultimately, meaning is fluid. Through visual rhetoric and an examination of content versus context, it is apparent that what readers perceive can be shaped by the environment it is placed in. Essentially, as Barthes (1977) notes, all representations are influenced by interpretations and all images are subject to each viewer imposing their own contexts to create their interpretation, rendering no image as pure. Though things like photo essays, and traditional articles with images and captions can be seen to skew the context of a photo, listicles take this idea to an extreme with their easily digestible information and spatially appealing arrangements. Listicles illustrate visual rhetoric through removing an individual’s own interpretation of an image or idea by imposing the author’s interpretation onto the image, changing the way it is perceived. This ultimately demonstrates the ability of listicles to shape content and perceived framework and showcases how author’s can use this fluidity of imagery and context to achieve a desired result.
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CBC News. (2011). Vancouver riot’s ‘kissing couple’ tell their story. CBC News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/vancouver-riot-s-kissing-couple-tell-their-story-1.983560
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Pope, Cath. (2013). Infographics: Content for the Eight Second Attention Span [Infographic]. Curated Content. Retrieved from http://www.curatedcontent.com.au/2013/08/21/infographics-content-for-the-eight-second-attention-span/
Thompson, Derek. (2010). 7 Reasons Lists Capture Our Attention (and Confuse Our Brains). The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/12/7-reasons-lists-capture-our-attention-and-confuse-our-brains/282414/#disqus_thread
Vidyarthi, Neil. (2011). Attention Spans Have Dropped from 12 Minutes to 5 Minutes—How Social Media is Ruining Our Minds [Infographic]. Social Times. Retrieved from: http://socialtimes.com/attention-spans-have-dropped-from-12-minutes-to-5-seconds-how-social-media-is-ruining-our-minds-infographic_b86479
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