This past weekend, my brother talked me into downloading a chat app for my phone. One of the app’s most notable features is a prolific library of downloadable stickers, many of them tiny, animated gifs of strangely whimsical cartoon figures. I have to admit, I have had a lot of fun finding and using clever stickers – a donut doing push-ups; Rodin’s “The Thinker” with an animated thought bubble that says “So?”; a cartoon gladiator giving a big thumb’s up. Until I started playing with this app, I would never have understood the attraction to a set of tiny images of a horse and frog dancing sinuously together. The idea is this: why use words when the perfect gif speaks volumes?
Also, this past weekend, I was reminded of the Love Locks phenomenon. While I have never placed one, my understanding is that people use love locks as a visual memorial – whether to a relationship or to the achievement of a personal milestone. The fact that it is a lock symbolizes permanence, the lasting nature of whatever the love lock is memorializing or testifying to.
These two phenomena are very different. The stickers are momentary ephemera, created by the thousands, used a couple of times then forgotten in the rush to find newer, more amusing or creative gifs. Love locks, on the other hand, are intended to attest to the permanence of whatever they are commemorating, be it true love, friendship, or self efficacy. It strikes me, though, that while motivated by different impulses both attempt to transcend the use of words in order to communicate emotion.
Images have always spoken powerfully to our hearts. But there seems to me to be a new weariness, even a cynicism, about words residing underneath the popularity of and preference for images these days. I see much less sharing of motivational and inspirational quotations on social media lately – perhaps understandably, as overuse of meaningful quotes and well-turned phrases clashes with the lack of both inspiration and thoughtful rhetoric in our current political and cultural discourse. Mistrusting what people say, are we placing greater faith in images? Certainly, it is easier to slap a cynical cartoon sticker on something than to find words that convey what you truly feel. But is the image more true or trustworthy?
I’m not opposed to images, and these ruminations are not intended to be “against” anything. Rather, as a lover of words, I’m wondering if we are likely to miss them as we, increasingly, omit them from our communication. Words, used well, offer a precision that can be lost in images. A crying toddler is an image, but there’s a reason parents the world over say to that toddler, “Use your words!”
So, I plan to keep having fun with the app. I’ve downloaded new stickers of sushi sumo-wrestlers and I can’t wait to use them in some witty repartee with my brother. And who knows, I may one day feel the need to click a symbolic padlock shut in testament to something profound in my life. Meanwhile, I’ll continue using my words – and encouraging others to do so as well. There’s a deep connection between using your words and having a voice. I believe our voices are sorely needed in today’s world.
“Words… They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos…”