The use of GIFs in a social, an even culturally relevant, contexts has become a phenomenon. GIFs are appearing in social media everywhere and are seemingly escapable. According to Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, the three defining properties of successful memes, or pieces of Internet culture, are longevity (how long a meme is relevant), fecundity (how translatable a meme is), and fidelity (how good a meme is). Given these three characteristics, it is easy to understand the success of GIFs, particularly the success of GIFs from the popularanimated television series South Park.
South Park has thrived since its creation in 1997 as a satiric adult sitcom featuring dark, surreal humor and valid social criticism. Its outrageous and inappropriate episodes are perfect to GIF since they are both visually and textually interesting. Other than for the sake of humor and/or insult, South Park GIFs often serve a more ironically dignified purpose than simply being reactions; they also work as important social cues and are “rich” media. In Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Nancy K. Baym argues “people show feeling and immediacy, have fun, and build and reinforce social structures even in the leanest of text-only media…leaving no question that we can do it with additional cues such as video,
images, and voice,” (Baym 59-60). GIFs take this kind of social cueing to another, more rich communicative level. That being said, while some South Park GIFs have valid reactionary purpose, I would argue a majority of them are serve as a kind anti-social cue.
The point of South Park is to satirize everyday life and express ideas and feelings we cannot in appropriate social settings. Most of the time, saying “Screw you guys, I’m going home!” has major negative social consequences; but in the fictional context of South Park, you have a means of poking fun at society in a constructive and humorous way. While South Park may not always be the most meaningful of GIFs, it lets people express that little socially inappropriate side in all of us without misunderstanding. And even for people who aren’t as familiar with South Park as most, there will always be something funny about eternal fourth-graders from the 90’s cursing and crapping on their teacher’s desk.
Baym, Nancy K. Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010. Print.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1976. Print.