You may not know this, but the web didn't have pictures at one point, and they were shoehorned in, in a deeply stupid way, by Marc Andreessen with the <img> tag. The rest, as they say, is history. I think a strong argument could be made that the web as we know it would not have "won" without pictures. It was not at the time clear that gopher was not the correct answer, for instance. Gopher seemed to be better at actually accessing information, which is what we all imagined the web would be for. I use "we" on purpose, I was there, and I thought this "web" thing was stupid and an engineering horror. I still do, and it is objectively an engineering horror.
With a way to put pictures on a web page (be it with a stupidly designed thing like <img> or a better design) the web became in that instant and in a small way about entertainment. It became more than a way to organize and access information, it became a Medium, in the sense of Media. At that point it became perhaps inevitable that it would wind up an advertising-driven eyeball chase, with ever more outre content, and ever decreasing cycle times.
Now, of course, we have vanishingly small cycle times. Trends and fads come and go in, quite literally, hours.
Pictures and videos are now the dominant "viral" objects, small, easily digestible bits of material with a strong visual component. People used to fax, and then email, jokes and lists and fake letters to the president to one another. That still happens, but mostly we share pictures, pictures with funny captions, and short video clips.
Is a viral photograph just an iconic photograph that lives in an medium with a 4 hour memory? Certainly some viral content enters the lexicon, as it were, and becomes something dredged up regularly as an ironic comment, or becomes enshrined as a local in-joke on a forum or in a game. Are those things some sort of "iconic-lite" in our new web based world?
It is perhaps telling that one of the many clickbait listicles currently in rotation on the internet, as I write these lines, is "The Ten Most Iconic Photographs Ever Taken" which does indeed include a few iconic ones. Obviously it's still a lazily tossed together listicle intended to pull clicks for a few hours or a few days, but it's made out of the real stuff. We're currently recycling actual iconic photographs into potshots at "going viral", the modern short-term iconic. A 4 hour icon made out of 100 year icons. Weird.
Anyways, where am I going?
Photographs are the perfect raw material for the new ultra-fast cycle. We consume a photograph in a moment. It's not linear and tedious, like text, with the variable reading speeds across the population. It doesn't require time to watch. We glance, we apprehend, we're done. Mission accomplished. The media is consumed, and the viewer can get on with the all important task of being advertised at.
The photograph, the still image, be it viral or no, be it the teaser image for a video or a genuine photograph, is what causes the scrolling to pause on a social media site. We scroll looking for something written by an actual friend, pausing only when a still image or a noteworthy name catches our eye. The digital camera, usually in the phone, enables the constant production of the scroll-pausing still image. It is the fundamental tool for capturing the attention of our friends, our acquaintances, our target markets. The picture has long been the basis of advertising but now we are, essentially, constantly advertising to our own friends and family.
Without the digital camera, the modern digital life would arguably make no sense. We'd be doing something quite different with our time. While the photograph isn't the entirety of the web, the mobile app, the social/digital life, it is arguably an integral driving force.
So there's the vernacular photograph, the foundation of digital life.
Oddly enough it doesn't seem to have destroyed Art. Museum attendance doesn't seem to be diving. People are printing more than ever (less as a percentage of pictures taken, natch, but more than ever in absolute numbers). And, of course, we have as pretty much as many sad little men grinding out Serious Photographs of bugs or landscapes or street or whatever on all the photography sites. There are signs that might be dipping some day, but that may be just wishful thinking.
The interesting trend here is the social media one, in which more and more of our time is spent farting around clicking wildly at the web, in an app. There's no law that says civilization has to survive this. And when the survivors are clothed largely in mud, and eating cockroaches to survive, we'll have the digital camera to thank for it all.
Kodak was right!