Early uses of animated GIFs online were mainly for decoration. Web designers unironically plastered their sites with tacky, digital animations seemingly in a competition to see who could make their website the loudest eyesore on the internet.
Almost all of these sites are gone or updated by now, but you can get an (admittedly toned down) idea of this period from the still-functioning website for the 1996 film Space Jam.
The point is GIFs were decorative, not conversational.
That changed in recent years as social media users saw the inherent potential in GIFs being used for reactions and personal expression — a visual analogy to emphasize or clarify your current state of mind.
Occupying the space between a still image and a full-on video, there are many technical reasons the GIF format became popular in communication. They capture your attention more than a static image, and they have the ability to autoplay in a loop, making them perfect for delivering responses in a context where timing is critical. A witty retort that forces you to click play on a video clip would undoubtedly kill — or at the very least maim — a joke. Moreover, GIFs are silent, which makes them less intrusive and more accessible. You don’t need to crank up the volume or grab headphones to understand a bundle of looping frames.
An Unexpected Comparison
As they’ve increased in popularity, many platforms like Twitter and Apple Messages have added GIF search engines directly into their service. Finding that perfect looping moment to express yourself is now only a few taps away, furthering the GIF’s place in modern language. They’re a quick, fun way of communicating nuanced emotions in a short visual moment. In fact — — if I may get super pretentious for a minute — I’d like to attempt a comparison between this modern use of reaction GIFs and (hear me out) the Mona Lisa.
In “Words On The Move,” author and linguist John McWhorter explains how medieval paintings often feature people whose faces lack any expression. They are stoic subjects who refrain from displaying anything other than the broadest of emotions. “It would never have occurred to a painter like Giotto to depict the full range of human expressions,” McWhorter writes. “Art was less about you, him, or her than about that: grander things such as religion and commemoration. We cherish the Mona Lisa as one of the heralds of the new era, with that smile we can imagine someone curling into near the middle of a good first date.”
Art moved from grand and broad to individualistic and personal. Reaction GIFs, then, are a logical progression of this idea: using imagery to express specific, nuanced emotions. Used in this way, GIFs are more language than art, and McWhorter writes that, like art, “human language has always and forever been getting personal.” GIFs are yet another example of how our language is continually changing with the advancement of time and technology.
When Words Fail
It can be difficult to adequately express all our complex emotions — how excited, upset or anxious you are about something — over a tweet or text. Attaching a GIF of someone who looks or acts the way you feel can serve as the visual analogy needed to emphasize your current emotional state, so everyone knows precisely how happy eating that pizza made you or how stressed you are about that exam tomorrow.
Reaction GIFs help with clarity in other ways, too. Spend any amount of time on the internet or texting a friend, and you’ll inevitably experience a circumstance where someone misinterprets someone else’s words, projecting an emotion that wasn’t there when the author wrote them. Adding an accompanying GIF of a pop culture figure manifesting your exact attitude instantly clears up any confusion.
The phrase “thank you” can be delivered casually, sarcastically, with heartfelt sentiment or with the air of triumphant validation, and there are plenty of GIFs available to make your specific intention clear (many of which originate from The Office).
As our technology evolves, so too does the way we communicate with one another. Animated GIFs have evolved from a fun file format to an exciting part of modern language. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Imagine all that can be expressed with these quirky bundles of looping images bursting with personality.