The post-text future: Is this the beginning of the end?

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The way people are consuming content is radically changing.

by Yehia El Amine

BEIRUT: Let’s make this short: what you’re doing now, reading prose on a screen, is going out of style.

If a person were to probe the coverage of the digital world, cataloging some of the most consequential currents shaping it, and look ahead to the coming year online, one thing becomes clear.

The way people – especially younger people – are consuming content is radically changing.

The defining narrative of the world’s online moment concerns the decline of text and the exploding reach and power of audio and video.

The age of multimedia Internet has been gaining traction, suddenly outperforming text-based content for some time now. Over the past several years, this phenomenon has become an epidemic, and now audio and video are unstoppable.

With most tech innovations becoming more visual, IoT-based, and dealing primarily with the spoken instead of the written word, this might be just the beginning.

Thus, when it rains, it pours.

Previously, the most influential online communicators voiced their opinions and perspectives on web pages and blogs; they’re now recording podcasts, creating YouTube channels, or becoming Instagram celebrities, all while creating political and sociological memes about everyday life.

If what people consume in just one minute online is any indicator, consumers are connecting to, searching for, watching, creating, downloading, and shopping for content more than ever.

According to data released by Facebook, The number of videos appearing in a normal person’s news feed has increased 3.6X.

Consider the most compelling digital innovations now emerging: the talking assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, that were the hit of the holiday season, Apple’s face-reading phone, artificial intelligence to search photos or translate spoken language, and augmented reality — which inserts any digital image into a live view of the world’s surroundings.

These advances are all about cameras, microphones, a person’s voice, ears, and eyes.

Together, they’re all holding up the same banner: Welcome to the post-text future.

It’s not that text is going away altogether. Nothing online ever really dies, and text still has its hits. “Visual content, be it video or audio are still fighting an uphill battle against the more dominant text-based content that reigns supreme over the Internet,” Mahmoud Ahmad, a local tech expert told Annahar.

Still, the world has only just begun to glimpse the deeper, more kinetic possibilities of an online culture in which text takes a bow, and sounds and images take center stage.

“It’s not long ago since WhatsApp released their voice note option for quick communication and already more than 42 percent of its users prefer speaking what they want to say instead of typing it,” he added.

The Internet was born in text because text was once the only format computers understood. Then technology started giving machines eyes and ears, with the invention of the smartphone, and now they’re provided with brains to decipher and manipulate multimedia.

Suddenly the script flipped: Now it’s often easier to communicate with machines through images and sounds than through text.

It’s more than just talking to digital assistants. Artificial intelligence might soon let us search and index much of the world’s repository of audio and video, giving sounds and pictures a power that has kept text dominant online for so long.

Tech didn’t just make multimedia easier to produce. It also democratized non-text formats, which for so long had been accessible only to studios.

Podcasting became something like the new blogging, a way for committed amateurs and obsessives to plumb the underexplored eddies and mysteries of life.

Meanwhile, social media showered every multimedia creator with a potential audience, and it allowed the audience to connect and discuss the work, deepening fans’ relationship to levels of obsession.

It’s a kind of passion that ultimately makes for a fundamentally new, deeper kind of art. Look at all the room the Internet opened up for crazy mash-ups of ideas. Netflix’s best recent show, “American Vandal,” is a parody of “Serial,” the true-crime podcast, and “Making a Murderer,” another Netflix show.

“Even now, the increasing popularity of podcasts has given birth to the creation of audio dramas that demand new skill sets, a new way of providing content and entertainment,” Alan Mehanna, a local talk show host who has his own podcast, told Annahar.

He added that the emergence of podcasts is slowly bringing people back to the age of the radio but with a new, yet, more modern twist.

However, some consider the rise of audio and video to be an interpretation of the need of having human interaction.

“With the rise of technology, people have become more glued to their phones as ever, communicating, and streamlining their thoughts to others via texting,” social strategist Mohammad Hajjar told Annahar.

Hajjar argues that the main reason behind people’s high engagement level with audio and video is the evolution of people’s want and need to have a genuine human connection with others while interacting with something or someone they could see, hear, and engage with.

“Consider the basic aspect of Instagram influencers, people prefer hearing their opinions about a number of brands, decisions, opinions because they’ve been provided with visual content that remotely creates a bridge of trust between the influencer and influencee,” he added.

The transition to multimedia won’t be smooth though.

Business models are hardly proven. For several news sites, the pivot to video ended in a bust that will now give Facebook and Google even greater market power. Many podcast advertisers are themselves not on the most solid financial ground; they could blow up tomorrow, taking the whole boom with them.

Yet the financial questions may be the least of our worries. An online culture ruled by pictures and sounds rather than text is going to alter much about how people understand the world around them.

The haze of misinformation hanging over online life will only darken under multimedia. According to a report by the Reuters Institute, many news publishers said that the majority of their video is now consumed via social platforms such as Facebook and the like.

“We find that the most successful off-site and social videos tend to be short, under one minute, are designed to work with no sound, with subtitles, focus on soft news, and have a strong emotional element,” the report added.

Almost 79 percent of news publishers are beginning to embrace online news video, with most of them considering investing more into video content as the year progresses; while others are just dipping their toes in the water.

“Most news organizations are in an experimental phase; they are nervous about the significant investment required, the difficulty of scaling video, and the uncertain path to commercial return,” the report highlighted.

The ability to search audio and video as easily as we search text means, effectively, the end of any private space.

Then there’s the more basic question of how pictures and sounds alter how people think. An information system dominated by pictures and sounds prizes emotion over rationality.

It’s a world where slogans and memes have more sticking power than arguments. But what are we going to do? There seems no going back now. For text, the writing is on the wall.

 

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