GIFs from a History Class: Introduction

Grey cat with eager face asks, "I can has cheezburger?"
LOL Cat memes are among the most recognizable static image/text memes.

GIFs are serious business. Like memes in general, GIFs proliferate across the web as users share and adapt Graphic Interchange Format (GIF) images for their own purposes. But unlike the static images and text that formed some of the most recognizable memes of the 2000s and early 2010s, the looping animations of GIFs rely on body movement and facial expression to communicate meaning. GIFs are highly emotive and easily adaptable across social media platforms, which helps explain the wild popularity of the images. In 2016, over 100 million users shared 1 billion GIFs per day via the GIF-sharing site GIPHY. Twitter users alone used 100 million GIFs daily in early 2016.

Given the popularity of GIFs, it is unsurprising these short, animated images frequently appeared in students’ tweets and blog posts. But did GIFs help or hinder students’ historical thinking skills? On the one hand, GIFs encourage a sense of play and help foster interest in a subject students regularly find boring. Engaging students’ interest helps them tune into the relevance of history to the present and to their own lives. Yet GIFs also produce the pitfalls noted in the first two chapters of “Hashtag History.” The affective quality of GIFs can lead students to inadvertently perpetuate injustices and the attention-grabbing nature of these images limits the scope of students’ and educators’ attention.

Peggy Olson of Mad Men swaggers down a hall in sunglasses, cigarette hanging from her mouth.
Mad Men Peggy GIF (via GIPHY). Implies swag, a cool walk, a solid exit.

This chapter explores how GIFs work (or don’t) in a history class. Like affect and attention, GIFs offer affordances and constraints. GIFs helped students engage the readers of their blog posts and express personal reactions to course content. The entertaining, animated images also aided the creation of an affinity space in which students bonded over their shared knowledge and experiences of the course. GIFs worked for students when they processed the relevance of history to their individual and collective lives.

However, GIFs constrained students’ practice of historical significance and historical empathy. GIFs capture attention easily, which means the students and I only ever noticed a small number of tweets. The narrow scope of our attention confined discussions of significance to a small portion of the class content. The fluid relationship between GIFs and context is also an obstacle for historical empathy, as GIFs made it more difficult for students to discern distinctions between past and present. In addition, the embodied nature of GIFs contributes to racist, sexist, and ableist representations online. Students inadvertently reproduced these representations in their tweets and blog posts, a tendency that hindered students’ capacity to connect historical and everyday empathy.

The chapter begins with a summary of the existing research on GIFs, primarily from the fields of visual culture studies and social media studies. An analysis of the affordances and constraints of GIFs, as outlined above, follows. Using close reading, sentiment analysis, and coding, I examine the GIFs students included in their tweets and blog posts. The investigation of students’ GIFs reveals the diverse uses of GIFs in the classroom and the impact of GIFs on students’ practice of historical significance and historical empathy. The chapter concludes with examples of thoughtful teaching with visual media. The constraints GIFs created in my course are not innate to the technology. Used intentionally and with greater awareness, GIFs are a potent pedagogical tool. It is therefore worth considering how educators can amplify the affordances and limit the constraints of GIFs in the classroom.

Chapter Sections

Existing Research: History, Impact, and Uses of GIFs

Affordances: Engagement, Affinity, and Affect

Constraints: Context, Significance, and Empathy

GIFs from a History Class: Conclusion