The rise of the visual conversation

Previously, people have mainly conversed either directly using their voice, or indirectly through writing. With the rise of social media and smartphones, the visual can become an integral element of conversation.

This means that there is an increasing number of conversations that are being had without necessarily needing either voice or text. In Japan, the considerable use of stickers within the dominant platform LINE (the Japanese equivalent of an app like WhatsApp) emerges from a long history of using cartoons – think of Manga culture, for example.

Older people find stickers to be a quick and easy way of expressing care and emotion. Laura’s research participants also discussed the way stickers are used to demonstrate care for others – using stickers also means one is less likely to make potentially embarrassing mistakes, such as typos. This is because in Japan, it is important to maintain the right atmosphere in communication.

You can see some more examples of stickers like these in the photo below, which is taken from the LINE sticker store. Anpanman, one of the characters in the sticker set, is being presented as someone who can help one apologise or thank their friends.

In Shanghai, when two older people meet often the opening line might be, did you watch that health video I shared with you? This is because in China, the practice of sending short healthcare-related videos has spread rapidly over the past few years. Most retirees watch at least some short videos on their smartphones every day. These might be videos illustrating how to massage an acupuncture point near the ankle to treat sciatica and arthritis or can be videos about what diet to follow in particular situations. Ranging from 10 seconds to 2 minutes, the files are small enough to be sent as visual messages that are embedded in people’s daily conversation on WeChat (China’s most popular messaging app, though it does far more than messaging).

We found this visual element was especially important in expressing care for people who live at a distance.

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