CULTURE & ARTS
07/30/2015 09:02 am ET Updated Feb 12, 2016

If You Have To Say It, Say It In GIFs

Where we're going, we don't need words. Or do we?

Hey! Hey! Look over here! This is an article, written in words, that you should read.

Wait, wait, no! Come back! Here, look at this: 

See what I did there?

For a GIF newbie, this brief, looping clip might seem a bit annoying, out of place and simplistic, but in the age of multimedia, this basic format has taken over nearly every corner of digital communication.

Internet media nerds like myself haven’t been able to avoid the tidal wave of kitten and "Dr. Who" clips. It sometimes feels like I woke up one day and the comments sections of my favorite blogs were, all of a sudden, crammed with strings of GIFs, while I searched in vain for the words written in English I could understand.

At my workplace, The Huffington Post, email threads welcoming new co-workers rapidly became GIF-offs. Some part of me sensed that my humble offering of “Welcome to the team!” was basically garbage next to a colleague’s priceless Richard Simmons clip.

The GIF has rocketed to the top of the Internet communications pecking order, an unlikely queen of digital chatter. Nearly 30 years ago, CompuServe’s Steve Wilhite launched the graphics interchange format as a higher quality and more compressed image file than existed on the market. Then, copyright squabbles tied up the GIF in court for nearly 10 years and, according to Mashable, put off many developers, who adopted the PNG format instead of the GIF when the former debuted in 1996. As the years passed, however, rather than fading away, the GIF evolved in directions its creator could never have predicted. 

The GIF's relatively low quality -- it encompasses only 256 colors -- and its animation extension gave it the adaptability to survive in a more current application: as short, looping animated graphics. This ability to seamlessly integrate snippets of compressed video into message board comments, emails and websites held the power to revolutionize digital communication, without eating up insane amounts of bandwidth.

In the corners of the Internet, the GIF survived and thrived. The odd, absurdist GIFs that initially defined the category were, essentially, decorative, funny bits of attention-grabbing eye candy. Companies slapped pixelated construction animations on incomplete websites; personal or less high-class sites embraced the cheeseball factor with moving images reminiscent of primitive video games crawling along the margins. 

Wilhite’s image format was living on as a bit of digital kitsch.

To the average viewer, GIFs probably read as tacky and visually intrusive, but familiarity tends to breed comfort. “We have gotten acclimated to seeing not just graphics but animated graphics for quite some number of years,” linguist Naomi Baron told The Huffington Post. “Think about the moving ads that have been on Weather.com or name your favorite website for a very long time.” They may have irritated us, but over time, these jerky animated ads simply became part of our new online life. 

Then another unexpected, yet somehow totally obvious, evolution brought GIFs to the forefront of web communication: the reaction GIF.

Basically, people started to figure out that GIFs could neatly solve a previously baffling obstacle to naturally flowing online chats. Let’s say you’re commenting on a forum, and another commenter says something shocking. Rather than type out an expression of your reaction (“Oh wow!” or “I can’t believe you said that!”), you can do as you would do in person: Drop your jaw, widen your eyes, and stare, dumbfounded.

OK, so you don’t do that, as you would in person -- but a little video clip of Nicki Minaj does, over and over. Unlike the words, which may not capture your tone, the GIF provides a clear emotional reaction.

Over the past two decades, we’ve proposed, rejected, failed to adopt and naturally evolved a potpourri of solutions to the problem of Internet conversation. The subtle vocal and facial cues conveying intended tone weren’t available in AIM chatrooms or on Twitter. The misunderstanding of sarcasm skyrocketed; punctuation marks clarifying intended sarcasm were introduced but never caught on. Emoticons and chatspeak arose to smooth communication, letting the world know we were :-O or ROTFL (“shocked” and “rolling on the floor laughing,” respectively). More elegantly, tweeters have taken to all-caps or all-lowercase styling, dropping the punctuation for a sly deadpan delivery. 

The limits of language, however, still chafe in an era when so much casual, conversational communication happens via screens rather than face-to-face. The GIF allows a sort of proxy face-to-face encounter, conveying a visual cue of your emotional state directly across the web. While apps like Facetime and Skype allow us to get a direct face-to-face conversation with distant friends or relatives, a GIF can approximate this experience for less personal or intimate situations, like a group email chain or a message board. It remains an estimate, an actor or cartoon character’s enactment of your condition, but it’s far closer to an in-person reaction than a tiny, yellow circle with a few dots. GIFs are “like HD emojis,” the COO of Giphy, Adam Leibsohn, told HuffPost.

And, like the emoji, the popularity of the GIF may have as much to do with its newness and cultural cachet as with its intrinsic value. “It’s that kind of thing of knowing what’s in and using it,” said Baron.

By using a GIF, we’re signaling that we know that GIFs are a thing -- it’s a way of saying, “Hey guys, I’m like the rest of you.” The format also makes another layer of cultural swagger easy; tossing around GIFs made from cult TV series or ‘90s comedies can add a glow of studied cool to your online persona. You can say “I’m so excited!” and “I’ve seen ‘Wet Hot American Summer’!” all in one easy step.

Accordingly, the curation of GIFs has grown into its own sub-genre of communications skill. Anyone can grin with excitement, but how does Amanda always have the perfect strutting Beyoncé GIF to convey her enthusiasm to a group email thread? (Dammit, Amanda, stop showing off!) Part of the pleasure in using a reaction GIF is the satisfaction of having hunted down the perfect clip of Michael Jackson eating popcorn or that priceless ‘80s exercise video. 

This layer cake of cool has attracted more powerful voices than those populating the comments of Gawker. The humor Tumblr "What Should We Call Me" rocketed to fame exclusively by juxtaposing funny GIFs with common daily problems. Buzzfeed and other digital media outlets began to integrate GIFs heavily into their content; listicles like “The Story Of Egypt’s Revolution In ‘Jurassic Park’ Gifs” sat alongside listicles like “23 GIFs That’ll Make You Question Your Entire Existence.” It’s easy for web media to use GIFs as a shortcut to achieving an aura of cleverness. The entire value of such posts, obviously, lies in excellent GIF curation.

Already, however, the challenge of being good at GIFs is being softened. The more they’re around, the easier they get to use. Take the Giphy feature integrated into the trendy corporate messaging app Slack.

By the time The Huffington Post’s newsroom got on Slack, I’d been hearing about it, with burgeoning envy, for months. My friends at other newsrooms and offices were using it, and it made them seem cooler, more plugged in. 

I wanted to Slack.

What I didn’t realize until we did, eventually, move over to Slack, was how easy it would become to slack off. Amanda Hess, in a recent Slate article, broke down Slack’s gamification of work -- the custom emojis, the friendly Slackbot, the goofy hacks, and, perhaps most distracting of all, the Giphy command.

Slack’s built-in GIF functionality allows you to insert a GIF from Giphy, a database of animated clips, by typing "/giphy" followed by a key word or phrase. This function is, obviously, irresistibly addictive. It combines two things Millennials and digital natives love: ease of use and attention-grabbing images. Make including a GIF as easy as typing a short phrase and the possibilities seem almost magical; you can make your text alive without even trying. Of course, this shortcut means sometimes the Giphy command gets lost in translation, a sacrifice we make for the ease of convenience.

Bit by bit, as the newsroom discovered this magical command, Slack rooms filled with strings of nonsensical GIFs, every chat an opportunity to see what Giphy would conjure up for a phrase like “kitten party” or “consider the lobster” or “sparkle time.” (Hint: Just because you use the keyword “Taylor Swift” doesn’t necessarily mean the random GIF pulled up will be of Taylor Swift, though Giphy’s Director of Platform Products, Nam Nguyen, told HuffPost via email that the “translate” feature, introduced two years ago, is designed to “[convert] words and phrases to GIFs.”) 

The seeming randomness of the command created an inconsistent reward as well as the alternative hilarity of a totally out-of-context GIF. Both a perfectly apropos GIF and an absurd one could, somehow, be enchanting. At CollegeHumor, Hess wrote, the discovery of the Giphy command created such a distraction that they created a channel just for random GIFs, “to prevent the tool from totally derailing actual work threads.” 

The bizarre GIFs occasionally spat out by Slack feel like throwbacks to the untamed early days of the format, when dancing computer-generated babies reigned in absurdist glory. We now expect conversational GIFs to be functional and meaningful, serving a purpose by conveying an emotion, our cultural savvy or at least a comforting image (awww, a pile of squirming puppies!).

In 2010, Jezebel’s Tracie Egan Morrissey published a “Glossary of Gifs” compiling useful GIFs from A to Z. In June, Tumblr, whose GIF-friendly interface contributed in its own way to the rise of the format, published a staff post introducing an easier method of adding GIFs to posts. “Since GIFs have replaced written language,” the post explained (in, ironically, written language), “we’re making it easier to turn your obsolete verbiage into modern moving pictures.”

If you listen to Nguyen, this maturation of GIF usage underpins their integration with Slack. “The Giphy experience inside of Slack is conversational,” he told HuffPost in an email. “The Giphy + Slack integration allows people in a workspace to connect with one another using GIFs as a way of self-expression.”

Giphy’s easy-breezy Slack integration also serves as a constant, if unintentional, reminder of the semantic shortfalls of the GIF. Any Slack user is likely familiar with the scenario I was confronted with recently, when I deployed the seemingly unambiguous command “/giphy tidying up.” The GIF that appeared showed a man manically popping in and out of a large box. That’s a failure of translation that would have to be rectified for GIFs to take on a more outsized role in our language.

Some, despite the daunting odds, have dared to dream of more: a GIF language. In 2014, MIT graduate students Travis Rich and Kevin Hu launched GIFGIF, a project that included a site where users can choose which of two GIFs better exemplifies a certain emotion (disgust, happiness, disappointment) in order to methodically classify the clips. Their ultimate hope, they told The Atlantic, was a GIF language that even computers could understand: “I want people to be able to put in a Shakespearean sonnet and get out a GIF set,” said Hu.

As with emojis, however, this will likely extend no further than gimmicks (Emoji Dick, anyone?) and wishful thinking. "You can communicate a lot with pictures, but the requirements of being a language are pretty strict," linguist Tyler Schnoebelen told HuffPost. A GIF can represent certain objects, actions and emotional states, but what about prepositions, pronouns and adjectives? As linguist Ben Zimmer told The New Republic, knocking down the emoji language push, “If you look at those strings of emoji, they can’t stand on their own. They don’t convey the same message as the text on which they’re based.”

Even Hu and Rich, now over a year into their GIFGIF experiment, admit the text-to-GIF goal is unlikely to come to fruition. “When we first had the idea of text-to-GIF, we imagined a mapping from text to a set of emotions, and from that set of emotions to GIFs,” they explained in an email to HuffPost. “GIFGIF provides the second part of that chain, but the first part of the chain is lacking.” They have taken a shot at creating such a translator, but results vary rather significantly. The translation mostly distinguishes between happy sentences and sad ones, with (sometimes) appropriate GIFs.

There’s more to language, however, than conveying emotional reactions, and this is where GIFs are most likely to fall down on the job. “How do you show peace?” Baron pointed out. “You look at Chinese, you look at middle Egyptian -- because that also started as a character system -- and in both cases they took pictures of things and repurposed some of them to stand for sound.” The idea of making a whole language of GIFs: “It’s cute,” she said.

Priscilla Frank

In short, Baron argues, there’s more to language than meets the eye; it conveys meaning that remains highly ambiguous in pictorial form. Consider that adage about a picture equaling a thousand words: A picture, or animation, can convey so much information that it’s unclear what the actual message is. A GIF of someone diving into a lake could mean various things, from “I want to go swimming” to “It’s really hot out.” In certain cases, context may clarify, but it’s always simpler and more easily understood to just convey the information in words. 

At least at this point in its life cycle, the GIF also seems to lack a sincerity chip. “A reaction GIF seems to be used more creatively as a meta-commentary than purely authentically for conveying emotion,” observed linguist Chi Luu on JSTOR Daily. The winky, allusive nature of most GIFs plays into this unserious tone. “These emotional responses are often well-worn tropes from film and narrative,” she pointed out -- and while it’s fun to recognize James Van Der Beek sobbing comically on “Dawson’s Creek,” using such a recognizable clip conveys more of a tongue-in-cheek nod to sadness than true devastation. 

This may be an inevitable downside to video clips of TV shows and movies. Another person’s tragedy can more easily seem like comedy, so it makes sense that the more distanced we are from the expression of sadness -- a clip of an actor portraying someone else’s pain on a movie from 15 years ago, say -- the less seriously we’re able to take it. That’s just one limitation of using GIFs as a language.

Here’s another: Imagine having to see that same Dawson weeping GIF every time someone wants to say “sad.” Good writing involves seeking the right word for the meaning, but also avoiding clichés. The distinctiveness of each clip, and the limited pool of GIFs, lends itself to our new “words” becoming hackneyed quite quickly.

At Giphy, Leibsohn has a slightly more moderated ambition for GIFs. “There's a huge future for GIFs as essential pieces of conversation,” he told HuffPost, avoiding any claim that the format could carry an entire language. “GIFs will surpass emoji.”

The parallel to emoji is apt. Baron, who cautions that she hasn’t specifically studied GIFs, argued, “If I were a betting linguist, if I wanted to do a pilot study ... my hypothesis would be GIFs work almost the same way as emoji, and emoji work almost the same way as emoticons.”

Arguably, GIFs already have surpassed emoji in that they offer a subtlety and meta-pop cultural commentary that has boosted their cachet. But will they ever really become essential? Well, that emoji comparison cuts both ways. “Think of the original emojis. They weren’t good enough,” Baron pointed out. “Fads come and go, so it’s important to know that something that seems so irreplaceable … I’ll bet you two years from now we won’t even be doing.”

Also on HuffPost:

PHOTO GALLERY
Feminist emojis
CONVERSATIONS