It has always been about communication. For computer science, that means connecting one computer server to another in order to share information over a single network. For illustration, it means connecting people through imagery and stories that reflect the shared human experience. In an age when people spend as much time online as they do in person, both the Internet and illustration rely on each other to create a space where people can connect. As technological advancements eliminate geographical boundaries and enable more socialization online, they also take with them the nuances of body language and facial expression that aid in-person communication. Visual imagery has filled these gaps as it provides context and emotion where words fail to do so, and continues to enhance the online experience with its illustrative storytelling throughout the Internet. From self-expression and attractive brand identities to engaging GIFs and interactive virtual stickers, the rise of social media has made a new space for visual imagery and pushed illustrators to fill it. Not only does illustration provide context online, but it also plays an integral role in encouraging emotional connection within virtual communities, particularly Instagram.
Illustration carries with it a simple definition that encompasses a broad variety of forms and holds a significant weight throughout history. As defined by Susan Doyle, Jaleen Grove, and Whitney Sherman, “illustration is visual communication through pictorial means.” While this definition can easily describe artwork that dates back to prehistoric cave paintings, illustration’s more formally recognized rise begins with 19th century advertising. Doyle, Grove, and Sherman go on to describe this “intent to communicate a particular idea...to a specific audience” as an essential aspect of illustration which encourages more critical analysis of the industry and its future.
Today, illustration spills beyond the printed page, and a vast majority of the visual imagery we see and interact with lives on the Internet. Early production of the World Wide Web began in the early 1960s when a man named J.C.R Licklider developed his concept of a “Galactic Network” with which “he envisioned a globally interconnected set of computers through which everyone could quickly access data and programs from any site.” This concept developed into what we may consider the first step into making the Internet function for the general public—electronic mail. As described by the authors of an article for the Internet Society, “this was a harbinger of the kind of activity we see on the World Wide Web today, namely, the enormous growth of all kinds of ‘people-to-people’ traffic.” They go on to discuss how “Email provided a new model of how people could communicate with each other, and changed the nature of collaboration” and, furthermore, set the stage for social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to take their place in this newly connected world.
Though incredible, computational communication lacked an essential element of human interaction—emotion. Since the beginning of mass print communication, people have sought ways to replace the non-verbal emotional exchange that occurs face to face. In 1982, after noticing the excessive misinterpretation happening across an online bulletin board, Professor Scott Fahlman suggested “joke markers” to indicate the emotional intent behind the text. These joke markers, which became what we know as Emoticons, developed into Emoji in 1999 as Shigetaka Kurita, a Japanese designer, sought to expand the symbols to include more than just facial expressions.
Fig. 1. Examples of Emoticons. Walker, Tory. “Emojis: The Complete History.” Medium. January 7, 2019. October 2020. https://medium.com/@heytory/emojis-the-complete-history-6dc81a330144
In an essay discussing the various uses and applications of emojis, Qiyu Bai indicates that emojis “[possess] similar neural responses to face-to-face communication [and] can add extra emotional or contextual meaning to communication, enhance the attractiveness of the message to receivers, help users in tone adjustment and conversation management and play a role in managing and maintaining interpersonal relationships.” Through the development of emojis, we see the importance of visual imagery to virtual interaction. As the Internet evolves, so does this exchange between humans and computers, and illustration remains an integral, growing piece of its foundation.
Fig. 2. Selection of Open Source Emojis. Walker, Tory. “Emojis: The Complete History.” Medium. January 7, 2019. October 2020. https://medium.com/@heytory/emojis-the-complete-history-6dc81a330144
The Internet’s elimination of geographical limitations allowed people to connect from anywhere in the world at any time. In response to this broad connectivity potential, social media platforms entered the digital stage and further expanded space for imagery on the web. The most well-known of these early platforms, Facebook, augmented the social aspect of the Internet and catalyzed the need for innovation in the ways we engage with virtual communities. Mark Zuckerberg, the main ideator behind “thefacebook.com,” created what is now called Facebook with the intent to design a social network that would connect computers across the Harvard campus. The website has developed since its birth in 2004 to include anyone with Internet access as a part of the Facebook community, but the main motivation behind it remains intact. Zuckerberg described the inspiration for Facebook as a hole that needed filling when he said “you could find music; you could find news; you could find information, but you couldn’t find and connect with the people that you cared about, which as people is actually the most important thing.”
By 2010, Licklider’s “Galactic Network” had transcended the bulky computers that had once taken up the space of entire rooms, and Zuckerberg’s movement toward virtual social networks had taken hold. At this point, much of the world functioned on handheld computers dubbed “smartphones.” A computer on the go, smartphones inspired an entirely new way to communicate. Virtual communication and online connection had become much more accessible. As handheld devices could travel with users anywhere they went, they adapted to nomadic lifestyles and included not only messaging and telephone applications but tools like a flashlight and a camera. As smartphones developed, they began to take on the role of companion more than computer and begged creative developers to expand on this concept of unlimited human connection from anywhere.
Fig. 3. Photographer unknown, Two women reprogramming an ENIAC computer, 1946.
In 2010, Kevin Systrom and Mark Krieger did just that. On 6 October, they launched an application for mobile devices called “Instagram,” designed as a photo-sharing platform with the ‘‘image first, text second’’ mentality. Like Facebook, it focused on online socialization, but unlike Facebook, it functioned as a smartphone application rather than a website and placed more emphasis on imagery. The platform utilizes the accessibility of the smartphone camera and thrives off of a “strong visual-oriented culture” which invites more creativity with image-making into the social arena. What began as a space for people to share photos has become an endless scroll of portfolios, self-expression, mass-marketing, and the ever-evolving GIF—all of which revolves around art and at its core, connection, from one person behind an account to another (or, rather, thousands).
How, then, has this influx of art on the Internet, particularly in the context of Instagram, changed the illustration industry? From emoticons to emojis, as well as pop-culture inspired memes and concisely animated gifs, illustration has expanded with the Internet and shifted the entire market. Instagram has not only expanded the space for visual imagery to a broader audience but has also redefined social networking. While a place for arbitrary posts about pets and houseplants, it is also a self-marketing platform, a storefront, an avenue for self-expression, and a never-ending scroll of visual storytelling. Artists have adapted to fill the spaces it creates and as they continue to do so, they push the industry toward more virtual interaction and engagement between artist and viewer.
In his work, “Future Dialogues for Illustration,” Roderick Mills discusses this adaptation as a shift toward authorship in illustration. He states that “[today] the importance of an online presence as an illustrator is paramount to encourage a sustained commercial career by generating new work.” Like product packaging, this online presence will either attract or detract viewers which places a heavy weight on personal branding. What an illustrator posts, how they post, and how often they post it all adds to their online presence and dictates the kind of work they will get hired for. By giving illustrators the ability to showcase their own work and a widely accessed space with which to market it, “Instagram allows technologically savvy artists to achieve fame independently, to sell their work on their own terms and to engage directly with supporters and collectors.” While “there’s comfort to be taken in the knowledge that all [artists] can get subsumed in the endless deep scroll,” there’s also a new responsibility for illustrators to maintain an online presence that will push their work to the top of the cascading feed.
How is this done? The same way Emojis gained fame and influence, so do Instagram users—visual imagery that encourages emotional connection. Platforms like Instagram provide space not only for artists to display their work, but to add their voices to the communities in which it lives. This kind of authorship in illustration practices propels the industry in a more emotionally motivated direction that inspires connection between author/illustrators and their viewers. Miles Romney and Rich G. Johnson explore this element of Instagram further in their article entitled “Show me a story: narrative, image, and audience engagement on sports network Instagram accounts.” Through their research of Instagram engagement they discovered that “narrative is the most basic form of human communication and therefore messages with strong narrative themes more easily connect the message from the communicator to the audience.” According to this analysis, illustration—with storytelling at its core—proves an essential element to virtual engagement. As illustrators connect with viewers and engage with them online through their work, illustrator authorship becomes an increasingly important element of the illustration market.
“Likewise, social media has become a never-ending cabinet of curiosities, a space to discover new artists, share ideas and invite people into your process...” Aside from self-marketing, Instagram also offers a creative outlet to its users which can prove an interesting element for professional development as well as community building and viewer engagement. For many designers and illustrators, maintaining an Instagram account functions as a “side adventure” that helps them tap into their playful counterpart to serious work. In a study about Instagram as a playscape for designers similar to a playground for a child, Chunhuie Xie concludes that “designers’ creative self-expression on Instagram led to their self-directed learning and identity development, which were similar to the benefits of children’s play in natural Playscape.” Like a sketchbook, Instagram acts as a useful tool to help illustrators formulate ideas that come from identity exploration. Instagram differs, however, because it involves an audience that influences artistic development and provides a unique factor of social interaction throughout the creative process.
As previously discussed, Instagram has pushed illustrators to take an authorial approach to their practice, and with that comes the element of illustrator/viewer relationship development. GIFs have become an interesting avenue for artists to do this as they are attention-grabbing and often connected to pop-culture references that join viewers across the web. Photographer team, Pamela Reed and Matthew Rader are the pioneers of GIF-making as an artistic practice and discuss it as their transition to digital media and adaptation to a virtual audience. In a discussion with the pair, S. Buck writes that “as print layouts and advertorials moved online, [Reed & Rader] needed to adapt. Soon after, they made the decision to quit working with still images entirely.” Reed and Rader go on to say, “we started to think about, ‘Why aren’t we making work for this community [the Internet] that we love and get inspired by all of the time?’” explains Reed. Their work is an example of the way that the Internet and its social exchanges of pop culture references feed their creativity at the same time that their imagery feeds the Internet’s social culture. By sharing and spreading GIFs online, an Internet culture develops to help artists and viewers alike feel connected through their online consumptions and contributions.
Their sharability on platforms like Instagram make “GIFs… an economical way for consumers to express their moods, and smart brands are creating GIFs as a utility for that purpose, making these shareable personal expressions.” In our search for an emotional connection online through imagery, these “forever looping” bursts of movement fill voids that words alone cannot fill. Xavier Harding states that “[modern] communication is messaging. Everything that was on the Internet is now shared within messaging apps and is conversation based. GIFs are everything we as humans want to say that words can’t express.” Illustrators have the unique opportunity as well as the responsibility to respond to this rise in GIF-making as they explore their new spaces on the web.
Three years into Instagram’s existence, another platform called GIPHY launched on February 1, 2013. Alex Chung and Jace Cooke created the private GIF search engine to enhance their online messaging with friends, but after attracting over one million hits during its first week, it has become integrated into the online experience. Upon review of the platform and its partnerships with companies like Instagram, Victoria Green says that increased GIF interaction “means getting down to where the conversation is being had, and not just hearing it, but interacting with it.” She continues, “when we do that, we connect more authentically, more often, and to better returns.” GIFs are a way for illustrators to engage more in-depth with their viewers as well as a way to say more with their authorial practice.
From the first emoticon to the endless scroll of GIPHY creations, visual imagery has provided the emotional context that online socialization needs to thrive; likewise, online socialization has expanded the space for artists to work and share stories. Illustrators take on new roles like that of animator and author, and platforms like Instagram offer a place for imagery to connect audiences from around the world. As illustration responds to the Internet, illustrators respond to viewers and viewers push the work toward interaction. While it has always been about communication, today, we face the challenges of less in-person interaction and thank illustration for filling the emotional gaps that words alone leave empty.
 Susan Doyle, et al., History of Illustration (New York: Fairchild Books, 2018), xvii.
 B.M. Leiner and V.G. Cerf, “Brief History of the Internet,” Internet Society. August 14, 2020. Accessed November 20, 2020. https://www.Internetsociety.org/Internet/history-Internet/brief-history-Internet/
 Tory Walker, “Emojis: The Complete History,” Medium. January 7, 2019. October 2020. https://medium.com/@heytory/emojis-the-complete-history-6dc81a330144
 Qiyu Bai, et al., “A Systematic Review of Emoji: Current Research and Future Perspectives,” Frontiers In. 2019. October 2020. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02221/full
 Christopher McFadden, “A Brief History of Facebook, Its Major Milestones,” Interesting Engineering. July 8, 2020. 28 November 2020. https://interestingengineering.com/history-of-facebook
 Lee Lee, “Pictures Speak Louder Than Words: Motivations for Using Instagram,” Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking 18.9 (2015): 552–556.
 Roderick Mills, “Future Dialogues for Illustration,” in A Companion to Illustration, ed. by Alan Male (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2019), 495-514.
 Aimee Dawson, “Insta-gratification,” Art Newspaper, October 14, 2020. November 2020. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/blog/instagram-turns-ten-a-decade-of-disruption
 Gem Fletcher, “The messy truth: Authorship in the digital age,” It’s Nice That. October 6, 2018. November 7, 2020. https://www.itsnicethat.com/features/gemma-fletcher-authorship-in-the-digital-age-graphic-design-021018
 M. Romney and R.G. Johnson, (2020), “Show me a story: narrative, image, and audience engagement on sports network Instagram accounts,” Information, Communication & Society, 23(1), 94–109.
 Fletcher. “The messy truth: Authorship in the digital age.”
 Chunhui Xie, “The Instagram Playscape: Designers’ Creative Self-Expression as Play and Inspiration for Their Professional Practice,” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2018.
 Stephanie Buck, “The History of GIFs,” Mashable. October 19, 2012. Accessed October 27, 2020. https://mashable.com/2012/10/19/animated-gif-history/
 Kristina Monllos, (March 26, 2018). That GIF You Just Shared? It Might Actually Be an Ad. Accessed December 30, 2020. https://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/that-gif-you-just-shared-it-might-actually-be-an-ad/
 Xavier Harding, “The Guy Who Made Us Speak in Gifs,” Popular Science, 288 (3) (2016): 16–17.
 Victoria Green, “A Very Brief And Incredibly Animated History of GIPHY - And What It All Means For Brands,” Market Wake. June, 26, 2019. Accessed December 16, 2020. https://marketwake.com/a-very-brief-and-incredibly-animated-history-of-giphy-and-what-it-all-means-for-brands/