Even if you haven’t done marketing and communications work, I bet that you’ve felt that magnetic pull of an image – especially on those sites and apps with infinite scroll and where the supply of cute animal photos (and now videos) feels endless. We’ve all felt the power of an image that compelled us to click to see more, understood stories that told only in photos, and most of us have probably also fretted about what photo to use when sharing certain things on social media. (Don’t worry, I fretted plenty over what photo to use for a post about the power of sharing photos!)
As a writer, it may not be surprising that when it comes to social media, I mostly use words. However, I’ve really come to love sharing photos one on one. With my parents, we often share pictures of what we’re eating and meals we’ve cooked. My friends share photos of their pets and kids and gardens and bathroom renovations. I’ll send a friend a picture of something I saw in a store that I know they would have liked or gotten a kick out of. I’ll send the pet lovers photos of the cat. One of the sweetest birthday presents I ever received was a video of my niece and nephew singing happy birthday to me, while I was half a world away.
Why does it feel so different than if I had seen the photo on social media, instead of in a message sent directly to me? Isn’t social media still a way of sharing what’s going on in our lives or what we’re experiencing with friends and family?
Several years ago, I took a course on knowledge management where they had a number of really wonderful guest lecturers (I learned so much! Thanks, Tara and Piers!). And one day, there were two people from an NGO I have unfortunately forgotten the name of, but they basically did work around storytelling and public health and helping organizations get better at storytelling to get their messages across. And they had us all do an activity: We were paired up and then told to find a photo on our phone and share it with our partner and tell them about it.
The magic that lit up that room. Everyone was abuzz and they had to really get our attention to wrap up the activity. Although the speakers were showing us the power of photos in terms of storytelling, here’s what I remember.
I remember how a group of us who had just met a couple days ago were now telling a near stranger about our favorite places, about how proud we were of our kids, about life changing trips, about loved ones who maybe were no longer with us. In the span of a few minutes.
I remember that the room felt warmer. That I felt looser and more grounded at the same time. That while we had all been sharing, the space felt alive.
Because we were building relationships with each other – with the person sitting next to us. Even if one person was showing the photo and telling the story at a time, it was still a two-way street. The other person made eye contact, nodded, smiled, made verbal acknowledgements, and/or asked questions.
And that’s the thing that gets missed sometimes in social media. Don’t get me wrong – there can certainly be a power to sharing our stories and letting people in when we say, post a photo or even a written story on a social media site. Obviously, I would not write blog posts if I did not believe there was also value in sharing things with a wide audience. There’s a place for that and it is needed.
But sharing a photo with one person (or even one small group of people) directly is a way to connect, to build relationships, to let people in—to say, “I choose you to share this with.”
There’s a conversation you can have in that space that you have created with the other person that you can’t have with an audience because you can each be equal participants. The other person can contribute to the conversation and move it to another place – beyond simply responding to what you had posted or shared (though they can do that, too). It’s easy for social media posts to get performative without necessarily intending for them to. But in a conversation with another person, it’s not about metrics.
When I worked in offices, I tried to make a point of acknowledging people when I or they walked in. Maybe it was a hello or head nod or a slight rap on the top of their cubicle wall as I went by. Because all of us, we need to feel seen, too. Feeling seen is different from being seen.
And that’s why conversations will never be replaced by posting and publishing.
So I say…in this blog post…which I am publishing. But if you want to talk, or have a photo to share, you can always drop me a line so we can have a conversation.