Meet the future. Her name is Maya Shaoolian. She is 2 years old.
Maya is just learning the basics of reading and writing, but she's a veteran of technology. She's been using an iPad since she was 1, says her father, Gabriel Shaoolian, the founder and CEO of marketing agency Blue Fountain Media. It's fun for her, he says.
It's also a window into how she'll communicate: with apps and texts and instant images and video.
"She is part of a generation that will know nothing else but 140 characters and 16 seconds of video," Shaoolian said. "She is part of a generation that will never know what a commercial is, because she consumes everything on demand. She wants content when she wants it, and without any interruptions. And it better be bite-size, because that is really all she has time for -- and all her brain processes."
This is not a lament, he hastens to add. Shaoolian says he draws his greatest lessons in technology usage from Maya. In fact, he thinks Maya and her friends will be better at making sense of those tweets and video snippets than, well, us.
"Her generation will be much more efficient communicating and grasping information," he said. "I am certain that she will read between the lines and grasp every nuance, because she has not had to relearn how to communicate or digest information. This is the only way she knows."
Well, OK. But where does that leave the rest of us?
The blur of communications has progressed from letters and emails to texts, tweets and Instagram pictures. Long, detailed speeches have turned into clips, then sound bites, then Vines, Snapchat and animated GIFs. Yes, we're adjusting to an image-intensive, brevity-favoring world, a world as close and available as our smartphone.
It's a fast-growing, hugely popular world that rewards short attention spans. Instagram was born in 2010; as of June, it has 130 million monthly active users and 45 million photos posted per day. Vine, the six-second video app introduced by the Twitter folks in January, became the iTunes app store's most popular free download within three months. It had 13 million users as of June, and its most active users post more than 14 Vines per day. Not to be outdone, Instagram launched its own short-video feature in June.
Users of Snapchat, a messaging platform popular with teens, exchange 200 million pictures a day. President Barack Obama's campaign used a Twitter photo to express thanks after his 2012 re-election; it became the most popular tweet in Twitter's history. Danny DeVito sends out photobombing pictures of his "troll foot" at every opportunity. Creative types have used Vine and Instagram to create memes, jokes and art.
All this gives new meaning to the Internet rule, "Pics or it didn't happen."
'All about the visuals'
That's certainly the case with Sam Green, the 25-year-old vice president of RiTE Media Group, an Atlanta-based video production company.
Green only got turned on to Instagram eight months ago, he says, but has been so won over by the app he's practically given up texting or posting written messages to Facebook. The benefits are many, he says: more attention from the public, more convenience for him, more engagement in general.
"It's all about the visuals," he said. "We could post a (text) saying we're on the set with Ludacris or we could post a picture with Ludacris, and that was getting a lot more views. People like to be able to see the proof behind the text. It's a much more honest way to engage for the audience."
He says the company's success has been driven by its Instagram push, estimating that 20 percent of RiTE's clientele has come through the service.
Nick Teissler, a 19-year-old student at Georgia Tech, is a fan of Vine. For him and his friends, Vine and Snapchat "are bigger than Instagram." Facebook doesn't even enter into the conversation, he says. (Mark Zuckerberg, call your office.)
The Vine videos are an easy way to share humor, he says.
"Humor, kind of expressing frustration," he said. "It's rare to have an informative Vine out there." Instagram, he says with impish disdain, "is more for people who want to express themselves and let people know that they're expressing themselves."
All these services are known for their brevity and convenience. Anthony Jack, a Case Western Reserve University professor whose work crosses the disciplines of psychology, neuroscience and philosophy, likes those details: One of the great benefits of social media, he points out, is the creativity that brevity inspires.
"It encourages people to distill ideas down to their core, and then only the ones that really stick get shared. So it is an effective way of generating incisive commentary," he said.
But he wonders whether something is being lost. It takes more than brief bursts of creativity to actually, well, communicate -- to really understand someone else's perspective.
"Understanding others' experience lies at the core of true moral understanding. It connects us to others and gives us a real appreciation of their motives and beliefs," he said. "So the danger is that social media is making us fall back on what we already understand: our stereotypes and preconceived notions. When social communication is so accessible and immediate, it can also become very shallow."
Remapping the brain
That's been a concern of older generations for, well, generations.