The wonderful meme known as the “response GIF” took the world by storm in recent years, and it seems like everybody who is anybody is using the facial expressions of their favorite television characters to answer digital communiqué. In fact, they became so popular that the Museum of the Moving image in New York dedicated this exhibit to them in early 2014.
Some may argue that a GIF isn’t quite in the correct realm to be considered a “meme,” but if we take a glance at the three defining properties of a meme– longevity, fecundity, and fidelity– as stated by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 novel The Selfish Gene, we’ll see that reaction GIFs are very much meme in nature (Dawkins).
Let’s look first at longevity. Reaction GIFs can still be seen circulating on tumblr, and I as well as millions of others see them on my dash daily. They’re not just newly created GIFs popping up either: for example, The Office ran from 2005-2013, and a lot of the GIFs created from this show are of scenes from earlier seasons, so these loops have been around for at least 2 years, if not longer (IMDb). Perhaps this is because the emotions depicted in a reaction GIF are timeless, i.e. they aren’t only relevant surrounding a current event. They were and will be useable until humans cease to have these emotions and need to express them.
Second, we can address fecundity and fidelity– frankly, these GIFs are everywhere. They permeate tumblr and reddit, and they’ve even had websites dedicated to solely to them like giphy.com, reactiongifs.net, etc. There’s even this handy site that compiles these sites for you because they’ve become so popular. Drawing from personal experience, most people are satisfied with simply reusing GIFs that have already been created (thanks, reblogging!). Reaction GIF styles are also very similar– they’re singled in on a character’s facial expression, if words are present, they’re at the bottom of the frame in a yellow or white sans serif font. Text is usually vague/universally relevant so the GIF can be applied in a wide range of conversations and can be comfortably used by non-watchers of the show without feeling that they’re “missing something” crucial to the joke. Anyone can relate to the image, and almost anyone can create one—as evidenced by the GIF I’ve (an especially technology deficient member of the peanut gallery) created below.
In a Social Media Reader article, Patrick Davison mentioned that humor often is a necessary component of a meme, but in this case I would argue that relatability is even more important in carrying the GIF across the web (Davison). Whether its relating on a personal level because you empathize, or relating you to a group of people by making you feel like you have an “inside joke” with them, it’s all about feeling a connection. For example, this popular GIF is not humorous inherently, but still a beloved and popular response.
All this lead me to reflect on the fact that we humans crave connection and in some strange way, GIFs are a social phenomenon that often remind us the fleeting feelings we have are also shared by others, and that no matter how geeked out for The Office we are, we aren’t alone.
Davison Patrick, The Language of (Internet) Memes, in The social media reader, edited by Michael Mandiberg, New York : New York University Press, c2012. x, 289 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.
“The Office.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 08 Feb. 2015. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0386676/>.