Understanding multimodality

Through (most of) my own words and experience…

Ellie Munford
8 min readJan 12, 2021

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? What’s the first thing you go to for a distraction? What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed at night? Whilst you might not perform this activity at each of these moments I have just mentioned, I can almost guarantee that you check you news feeds multiple times a day. Nowadays, it’s how we get our news.

If you’ve read some of my previous blogs you’ll know I am an advocate for obtaining news information via digital media. This is because there are a vast number of platforms that disseminate information and news stories in a variety of ways which enables you to have a more well-rounded perspective. Any story that’s worth writing about will be featured by multiple news outlets, by hundreds of independent journalists as well as literally millions of personal users who can each add their own text, images or audio which alter the meaning of the story in different ways. Arguably this can seem like an overload of information, but if you curate your newsfeed to feature updates from accounts that you trust, you know the information you are getting is pretty accurate and you can drown out the ‘noise’. This will afford you more information and clarity about an event over the person who just reads the Apple news notifications and then calls it day, or the person who takes every update at face value.

So you’ve read this far, but what really is multimodality and why am I talking about news feeds? The trusty old Oxford References defines multimodality as:

‘The use of more than one semiotic mode in meaning-making, communication, and representation generally, or in a specific situation. Such modes include all forms of verbal, nonverbal, and contextual communication. Multimodal literacy refers to awareness and effective use of this range of modalities.’

So essentially, multimodality in the context I am referring to means employing several different modes of media for communication, such as using social networking platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, to convey messages that incorporate pictures, text, videos, infographics, interactive polls etc. to an audience. The boom in social media and the transition of news outlets from print to digital, would seem to suggest that standard text as a method for distributing news is not enough for the modern reader.

Digital Information World reports that:

“Between the years 2017 and 2019 you would see that there is a drop of about 11 seconds in the average time spent on a website. […] This is important data because of the fact that this will have a large impact on the kind of content that is being produced, and it will also incentivize websites to start adapting their designs and user interfaces to capitalize on what they now know.” — Zia Muhammad

As attention span seems to be dropping dramatically year on year, organisations adapt to hold their audiences for longer. This involves a shift away from text to allow for visual content like images and videos to do more of the story telling in a digital capacity. In this way, the modern audience is pretty multimodal literate. An average user has the knowledge to navigate multiple media platforms and interact with this visual information because these websites are designed to grab their attention and keep them engaged.

How I fared in my own multimodal adventure

As I have already mentioned, I have been updating my social media pages regularly with news updates. However, the way in which I conveyed this news varied depending on the type of platform I was using.

For example, I found Facebook to be the most effective for communicating longer pieces of information as there was no character limit. I used this platform to set up a journalism page for sharing lifestyle articles and interesting worldly developments as opposed to breaking news because I could elaborate more on the stories that I was sharing, enabling me to be subjective and opinionated.

What I enjoyed the most about sharing on Facebook was that the overall experience felt a lot more enjoyable. I saved the breaking news and important information for other platforms because I felt they were more efficient at disseminating news to an audience as events occur. According to statistics, the top two age groups for Facebook users are between the ages of 25–34 years and 35–44 years. Existing data suggests that people in these age groups are known to source their news from places other than Facebook so bringing news updates to my page felt somewhat futile. In addition, this type of ‘serious’ news tends to be very negative (especially in the midst of a pandemic!) so the articles I shared on Facebook were a welcome change to all the doom and gloom and were chosen specifically to target millenials and Gen X. In light of this, I felt it appropriate that text was the primary mode of communication on this platform although I included links and images to keep it visually exciting without being overwhelming.

Examples of my Facebook posts on my journalism page.

In contrast to the text heavy posts on Facebook was the entirely visual Instagram experience. Unlike Facebook, which relies on both text and pictures, or Twitter, which relies on text alone, Instagram’s sole purpose is to enable users to share images or videos with their audience. I found the stories feature to be the most useful at getting breaking news out to my followers as you can instantly share information in a visually appealing way, encouraging an audience to read, watch and listen.

I learnt early on that in order for my stories to be a success with users, the text had to be minimal and graphics had a lot to do with audience engagement. A survey by Hubspot discovered that one of the most popular instagram story formats were short narratives.

“Short narratives are basically articles translated for a more visual audience. They rely on brief paragraphs and bullet points of text, accompanied by related visuals, to tell a story in a few cohesive short slides.” — Pamela Bump

Taking this into account, I had noticed a lot of conspiracy theories and non-believers sharing misinformation across social media about coronavirus. I thought making creative Instagram stories to combat this would be the most effective way of distributing the information to the public whcih I then saved in my highlights, aptly named ‘COVID-19’.

(I also wrote a blog post about trust in the media which you should definitely read for more tips on confronting disinformation!)

Examples of posts shared to my highlights on Instagram.

I was sure to make use not only of images, but also GIFs, and the ‘Stay Home’ hashtag which appears as an icon to increase traffic to my account and keep the posts relevant. In my other posts I was also able to make use of videos, music and even shared relevant posts from different accounts to my stories. I also created my own GIF to promote my other social media accounts using Canva which you will see at the bottom of my blog posts and on my Instagram! Once they were uploaded I could organise them into a corresponding highlights folder where they can stay beyond the allocated 24 hour period to be viewed long after they were posted.

My efforts seemed to pay off because I received several direct messages from my followers engaging with the content I posted. This felt much more personal than users commenting on my posts as I was able to have more of a discussion with them and it took away some of the formality involved. It occurred to me that journalists wishing to engage with modern audiences must utilise these visual features if they want to establish an online presence.

For me, I felt that the speed with which I was able to update my followers was a huge positive because quite often I would be sharing the key points of breaking news to a social platform where users aren’t necessarily looking for news. This meant that my audience were learning of information directly from me and not from a typical news outlet or website. As a result I would have frequent messages asking more about my news updates and what it meant for them which boosted my confidence immensely as I became a primary source of information.

Overall I feel that multimodality has been really effective in engaging with an online audience but I think the trick lies in knowing the balance between text/image/GIFs depending on the demographic you’re trying to reach. For older users, they haven’t had as much exposure with technology so too many moving graphics can be confusing and distract them away from the point you’re making. With younger users, they seem to be more media literate in terms of interactivity as they how to use highlights and how to engage with polls and quizzes etc.

One thing I would do differently is set up a variety of templates on Canva so that when I come across breaking news I can format it quickly into a pre-made template. This will make my page look more cohesive and professional as a running theme with matching colour palettes work wonders for building a brand image and reputation.

I hope this has been an informative read and that you have learned something new! Hopefully the word ‘multimodality’ doesn’t seem as complex and scary as it did at the start and you might even start incorporating it on your own profiles. Maybe, you’ve realised you already do!

Make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for more journalism related content!



Ellie Munford

Blogger | Conversationalist | Feminist | Digital journalism should be your primary source of news — Change my mind?