It has become increasingly common online to see near a comment (or in place of a comment) a short, repeating section of a movie or television show that expressions some sort of reaction. These GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format), while seemingly simple, have drastically changed the way communication takes place on the internet. They’re easy to use and simple to view given that their open format allows them to load without having to even press a play button. Often they are used to show funny parts of a show/video/movie but the reason that this form of communication has caught on goes beyond their humor.
Nancy Baym, former Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas, expresses in her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age the ‘intimacy’ of different types of interactions. She conducted a study in 2002 in which she asked people, “to share general thoughts about communication face to face, on the telephone, and on the internet,” (Baym, 2010). Most people responded by saying that the internet is the least personal of the methods, followed by telephone and then face to face. Their responses were greatly represented in terms of the extent to which nonverbal social cues can be used in each medium. On the phone, people can use inflection and tone to convey the meaning behind their words. In person, inflection can be used in addition to gestures and expressions. However, online there is no method of conveying these nonverbal cues and misunderstandings are fairly common. GIFs (and reaction GIFs in particular) have found a way to assist online communication by providing an example of a particular emotion or feeling. The GIFs shown here are from a show Bravest Warriors that is often used to communicate emotions and reactions in a playful or innocent manner. For instance, saying something like “why would you do that?” could be interpreted in a number of ways. The use of this particular character provides not only context for the statement, but also comes with a sense of innocence that a different GIF might not have.
A quick search online makes it clear that a relatively small number of GIFs are used despite the infinite possibilities. The main reason for this is that GIFs need to have certain properties to be successfully spread. According to Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, the properties for a meme to spread are longevity, fecundity, and copy fidelity (Shifman, 2014). A meme is just an idea that spreads within a culture and so GIFs, which are ideas represented through short clips, can be classified under the category of meme. Longevity refers to how long the meme can last and this largely depends on the recognizably of the meme. The most widely used GIFs are of not only of reactions that are extremely common, but they are taken from sources that are widely recognized. Fecundity refers to the versatility of the meme and how many situations it can be applied to. Fidelity refers to how well the meme can transfer, which is to say how well the meaning of a particular meme remains constant depending on the context in which it is used.
The GIFs from Bravest Warriors, including this final one I created, all incorporate the three properties mentioned above. The show is a popular web series so it could be easily recognizable depending on the community in which it is used. Because arguments often appear on the internet, innocent GIFs intended to calm others can be used in many situations. Finally, the meaning of the GIFs will remain relatively constant regardless of situation because the concept of ‘cute’ is universal.
Baym, Nancy K. “Communication in Digital Spaces.” Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010. 50. Print.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.
Shifman, Limor. “When Memes Go Digital.” Memes in Digital Culture. MIT, 2014. 17. Print.
GIF Sources (in order of use):
Tumblr User: Superblys
Everything is Ok
Tumblr User: PinkSpaceViking
Why Would You Do That
Tumblr User: Auberginesareevil