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Where Facebook’s Going, We Don’t Need Words

Visuals are more important to Facebook than ever — and as a result, text-only updates are dying

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

The Facebook status update was introduced in 2006. The feature was incredibly simple. A small box asked “What’s on your mind?” and you, the user, answered.

The box asked for nothing else, just some words — many words, if you wanted. In the late aughts, the status update box served as a sort of all-purpose blogging platform: a next-generation AIM away message for some, a diary of life events for others, a space for (often uninformed) current events commentary for many. Over time, the possibilities expanded: Facebook added the option to include photos or emoji, tag people, launch Facebook Live or Facebook’s Camera and augmented-reality stickers. In 2017, tagging a location in a status update will pull up a map to accompany the text. The status update bar is now a veritable drawing board, complete with markers, stickers, and nearly anything else you want to put on it.

The latest change to the status update is big blocks of color; users can put white text on a variety of background shades, making the News Feed look like a rainbow of shouting. It’s eye-catching, for sure, but also limited: A color-block status update infantilizes significant life updates, and is certainly not the right setting for talking about politics or tragedy.

But the utility of the color-block updates (or their aesthetics — I don’t care for them, if you couldn’t tell) is neither here nor there. What is more significant is that the giant neon yellow — or blue, or green, or millennial pink — squares mean Facebook’s war on words is getting serious.

This week at F8, I attended a panel about building apps for Facebook Camera, specifically things like frames and filters, to give users a vast catalog of features to choose from. “As Mark [Zuckerberg] said today, [Camera-created updates are] becoming more popular than text,” said product manager Michael Slater, referring to images uploaded as status updates into News Feed. “We want to make visual communication easier,” Slater said. “The new Facebook Camera allows you to share videos or photos to friends or in News Feed or in a Story.”

There are more and more ways to share images on Facebook: the “Live” and “photo” share icons are front and center when you open the app. Next to the search bar, there’s yet another camera function — and underneath that, the ability to fire up Stories. Then there’s Instagram, Facebook’s wildly popular photo-sharing app, whose photos dominate the News Feed. These methods of communication now get the spotlight treatment on the once text-heavy platform. Scrolling through Facebook in 2017 is a tour through big embedded story images, giant click-through ad experiences, and pushed-through Instagram posts. And now, even the updates that were just words are all-the-colors-of-the-rainbow notes.

Naomi S. Baron, professor of linguistics at American University and the author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, says the various image-based ways to communicate — emoji, animated GIFs, smartphone cameras — have made it “trendy to present yourself visually.”

“So I’m not surprised at the move away from text for updates, which are meant to be ‘read’ (now, ‘viewed’) quickly, with the hopes of impressing your friends,” Baron told me via email. “In an information-noisy world, use of bold colors and graphics is attention-grabbing. The content of these updates is often intended to be more emotive than semantic.” Baron does wonder how long the trend will hold. “Will text be the next new thing in a few years (like the comeback of vinyl records and Moleskine notebooks)? Probably not, but fads are often unpredictable.”

In the meantime, words are less popular than ever. Facebook’s Camera app has its own designated section in the News Feed, pulling up stories and face-filtered selfies that friends have posted. (Yes, just like Snapchat.) This week, Facebook announced the ability to animate any text in these Snap-like images and videos. That is the draw: How the words look and how they move — not what they say.

This is the future Facebook is plotting. In addition to its announcements about Camera apps and color blocks, this week the company unveiled a social VR experience called Facebook Spaces. It’s essentially a mechanism to tangibly touch and manipulate your way through the Facebook timeline and News Feed. Using the Oculus Touch controls, I was able to pick up photos and other updates, and stretch them into whatever size I wanted. I could take photos of my friends and surround myself with them — or I could take selfies with them, virtually anywhere in the world. It was all meant to be touched, molded, and, most of all, looked at.

At F8, Facebook gave away new 360 VR cameras because it wants to increase the content available for users to explore in VR. Even I can admit that the least interesting parts of Spaces were the text-only updates. You know what’s fun in VR? Videos of giant pandas. You know what isn’t? Fifty half-baked words on the situation in North Korea. The future of Facebook looks a lot like its start, which was an innovative (if crude) way to stare at photos of faces. It’s right there in the name. The words never stood a chance.