Affordances: Engagement, Affinity & Affect

Students in my course, like web users generally, used GIFs to engage their audiences, create affinity with one another, and express affect. Affective expression was especially useful to students. I strongly encouraged them to focus on understanding past societies rather than reacting to them, but students used GIFs to work with and around this ethos. In their blog posts and tweets, they avoided affective responses in the written portions of their work and instead articulated their emotional responses through GIFs. This use of GIFs enabled students to play with class content more freely. Although the use of GIFs to entertain, bond, and emote rarely led to an increase in students’ understandings of historical content, students occasionally presented illuminating interpretations of historical content through their choice of GIFs.

Engagement: History is Boring, GIFs are Engaging

As noted in The Attention Economy & Historical Significance,” students in my course frequently found history boring. In order to engage the audiences of their blog posts, students included pop culture references, humor, and media in their posts. GIFs were part of their strategy as well and often proved more effective at engaging peers than other forms of media. Students likely tapped into the findings of Detenber, Bakhshi, Jiang, and their co-researchers: GIFs reliably capture an audience’s attention and consistently do so without the audience being fully aware of the pull exerted on their attention.

The pull of GIFs on students’ attention is apparent in their comments on each other’s blog posts. When students mentioned visual media in their comments, they typically commented on the presence or absence of pictures and GIFs rather than the specific content of the images. For students, a post was immediately more interesting if visual media was present. The importance of the mere presence of GIFs was born out in readers’ comments for Post 1 of the blogging project:

What really caught my eye throughout this entire post was the usage of gifs to illustrate the laws, which was really fun and engaging for us readers. (Germaine, comment on “Class Conflict in Ancient Rome“)

I absolutely loved the innovate use of GIFs when breaking down the laws from the Twelve Tables. It livened up content that might have been a bore to read. (Zachary, comment on “Class Conflict in Ancient Rome“)

Your tone was casual and it really felt like someone was reading the story to me. Visuals were amazing, there were plenty of gifs and pictures. (Derek, comment on “The Maat Is Strong With This One“)

So far your blog looks very word heavy, which may cause some readers to stray away from its monotonous black and white look – adding more visuals like images, gifs and even videos will add pops of color and will go well with the vibrant story your blog portrays! (Monika, comment on “The Bloody Divide“)

In their comments, students noted the use and placement of GIFs, but not the specific content of the images.  Likewise, when students recommended improvements for posts, they focused on including GIFs but not on the content of those GIFs should contain:

Well, to improve your blog post further, you might want to consider including more pictures and gifs to engage readers further. (Jing Yi, comment on “I am the goddess and the goddess is me”)

There are pretty amazing GIFs and pictures as well. However, i think it would be good to add more GIFs and pictures to make it more interactive! (Timothy, comment on “The Maat is Strong With This One”)

Lastly, images/gifs. It would really help the visualisation of the readers and make it more fun/interesting as well. It was a great read though! (Daryl, comment on “The Bloody Divide”)

However, I think that the post seems a little dry, cause there are huge chunks of words at a time! While the content is really interesting sometimes this makes reading a bit difficult so I think you could add some pictures or gifs? While there might not be a lot left of some of the rulers, I still think whatever images you can find will really help enrich the post! (Ning, comment on “Beauties, Not Beast”)

The last comment is especially telling. Ning notes the potential scarcity of images related to the post and recommends the authors use “whatever images you can find…” The presence of images and GIFs was more important than substance.

Not every student agreed that “anything goes” for GIFs. Echoing Huber, some students outlined a “complex set of media practices and consumption” for GIFs. Students expressed concern over the possibility of overuse, distraction, and appropriateness of content. In a break with most of their peers, Regina and Jesslyn implied there were rules to the use of GIFs. Substance remained less important than presence, but these students implored their peers to consider the quantity and placement of GIFs in their posts carefully:

Of course we have to compliment the use of those wonderful GIFs. They just lighten up this post even more when a whole chunk of paragraph is presented… However, the use of GIFs are a little too much? Or rather you could split them up. (Regina, comment on “Class Conflict in Ancient Rome“)

I found the large Darth Vader gif a bit distracting while I was trying to read the text beside it. (Jesslyn, comment on “The Maat is Strong With This One“)

Affinity: GIFs build social bonds in a general education course

Students recognized GIFs’ capacity to engage an audience, implied the basic presence of GIFs was sufficient for engagement, and noted that balancing text and GIFs was necessary to keep the audience focused. In addition to affording students a way to engage their audience, GIFs created space for students to craft playful personal responses to course content. This sense of play proved useful for creating affinity (i.e., social bonds rooted in shared knowledge, experience, or passion) in the classroom. Brown, Jiang, and Samermit all attest to the power of GIFs to develop social bonds within affinity groups and maintain connections among friends. GIFs and other visual media facilitated affinity among students in my course as well as between students and the past peoples they encountered in the course.

Social bonds among students

The Bent Pyramid (via Wikimedia). Ivrienen at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0 .

Humorous, memeified expressions of self-identity were especially useful for creating affinity in my course. Students used both static images and GIFs to express themselves and connect with each other. In response to my overview of the development of pyramid architecture between 2650 and 2550 BCE, for example, @elyworldciv tweeted: “tag yourself i’m sneferu: ugly but trying its best #hwc111 #c03.” The student used the image to capture a sense of self, but included “tag yourself.” This signaled their intent to express a sensation shared among other students.

@elyworldciv’s tweet didn’t receive a huge response (1 retweet, 1 favorite), perhaps because the tweet occurred early in the semester as classroom bonds were just beginning to form. @elyworldciv’s end of semester tweet of the same nature, though, clearly captured a mutual feeling among students. They wrote: “i will miss the panicky feeling of coming onto twitter and wondering if the primary source tweets are from group a or b.” A GIF of a man standing at a bar, hand over his mouth and looking a bit depressed, accompanied the tweet text. The tweet garnered two retweets and nine favorites from @elyworldciv’s peers because it encapsulated students’ shared experience of anxiety about the rotating schedule of Primary Source Tweets.

Students also leveraged their identity as Singaporeans to build affinity around the course content. Unlike the expressions of communal identity noted in The Attention Economy & Historical Significance, students did not use visual media to define a communal identity so much as create one. The most retweeted and favorited tweet of the semester, simultaneously referenced ancient Egyptians’ concept of multiple parts of the soul and a popular Singaporean snack, bak kwa. @chaddergoh tweeted a picture of bak kwa and the text: “When soul meets body: ba + k(w)a.”

The tweet created affinity among classmates (evidenced by the 2 comments, 3 retweets, and 15 favorites) by drawing on multiple layers of common experience. The humorous word play and reference to Singaporean food could be appreciated by readers outside the course, but class-specific content was recognizable primarily to peers. As such, @chaddergoh’s tweet represented the development of affinity instead of merely evoking a pre-existing identity.

Connections with past peoples

GIF of Michael Scott of the Office with text overlay "Relationship between Sicilians, Italians and Greeks: I hate looking at your face. I wanna smash it."

In addition to adapting course content to develop affinity with peers, some students employed visual media to create connections between past and present peoples. Like the Sherlockians studied by Brown, students looked for ways to create resonance between their own experiences and those of distant historical figures. In the blog post “Greek Colonisation,” students remixed existing GIFs to include the names of the Greek city-states and colonies discussed in the post. They inserted the text “relationship between Sicilians, Italians and Greeks” into a GIF of Michael Scott (the inept and insensitive boss on The Office) declaring, “I hate looking at your face. I wanna smash it.” Euboean imperialism is represented by a swaggering rock star and the text, “and the euboeans said I want it all and I want it right now.”

Rock star struts across the stage in this GIF. Text overlay: "And the euboeans said I want it all and I want it now"

The post authors most likely included GIFs in the post to engage their audience, but the remixed GIFs also bridged the past and present. The remixed GIFs made it possible for the past to feel more familiar to both the authors and readers. This familiarity, in turn, facilitated affinity by invoking shared tropes in the past and present. While the Greek colonies obviously lacked rock stars, the singer’s swagger invokes a persistent, masculine possessiveness that arguably drives the colonization of both city-states and center stage. The character Michael Scott is a recent invention, too, but the petulant loathing communicated in the GIF captures animosity common to ancient polities and modern people. By remixing GIFs to include the names of ancient Greek city-states and colonies, the students invoked an affinity between themselves and people in the distant past.

Affect: GIFs as Affective Vocabulary

Like the text of tweets explored in Affect & Historical Empathy, GIFs communicated affect. However, the embodiments embedded in the looping, animated images afforded students a more complex affective vocabulary to express their responses to historical material. Students utilized GIFs to intensify the text of tweets or blog posts, work around my discouragement of emotional reaction and judgment, and to communicate concepts for which words (or words alone) seemed inadequate. GIFs afforded students a more nuanced and accurate emotional vocabulary and, on a few occasions, enabled their communication of highly original interpretations of course concepts.

GIFs that intensified and added emphasis

When students used GIFs to reiterate the text of a tweet or blog post, the images functioned as a form of punctuation and emphasis. Like emoticons, GIFs that reinforced text were intended to be read literally. The user limited the possibility of misinterpretation by confining symbolism of the GIF to a single meaning by coupling the GIF with the text of a tweet. For students in my course, this afforded a way to solidify reactions and clearly communicate their sentiments to me and their peers.

In a response to the class discussion about the Analects, for example, @sanjanaC15 realized: “ALL THE FAMOUS QUOTES ARE FROM HERE :O.” @sanjanaC15’s tweet reiterates the exuberance of the statement by capitalizing the text and the emoticon :O. The GIF doubles down on @sanjanaC15’s reaction by portraying a young man’s delighted surprise as he shapes his face into a wide-eyed “Oh.” His facial expression mirrors @sanjanaC15’s emoticon :O.

@marmuses’s tweet criticizing the actions of the king in the Epic of Gilgamesh similarly contains multiple layers of emphasis. The tweet text reads: “it seems like Kings have this skewed perception that they’ve rights over EVERYTHING; even sleeping w someone else’s wife /smh/.” The text itself is condemnatory and @marmuses punctuates their point with an embodied reaction represented in “smh,” an acronym for “shaking my head.” To drive home the point, a GIF of Hermione Granger (from the Harry Potter films) rolling her eyes and shaking her head, a simulation of @marmuses’s “smh.”

Offloading personal, emotional reactions to GIFs

Intense agreement or disagreement, like the reactions represented in @sanjanaC15 and @marmuses’s tweets above, was a common theme in students’ tweets despite my cautions against moving too quickly to personal reactions. As noted in Affect & Historical Empathy, I emphasized understanding over affect while the course was in session. In order to work with and around my expectations, students offloaded their personal reactions to GIFs. In the blog posts especially, this allowed them to maintain a neutral stance in the text of a post but still articulate their emotional responses to the subject matter.

In “Class Conflict in Ancient Rome,” the authors of the post outlined tensions between plebeians and patricians throughout the early history of the Roman Republic. The text portion of their post remained fairly objective. Students recognized that “some laws can appear quaint and some may seem harsh,” but overall provided a contextual reading of the law code’s significance to the Romans and later civilizations. Their gallery of GIFs, included to engage their audience in a potentially dry account of legal history, took a different tone.

The images primarily express confusion and condemnation. The law that reads, “If illness or old age is the hindrance, let the summoner provide a team. He need not provide a covered carriage with a pallet unless he chooses,” is accompanied by a GIF of a confused woman asking, “What’s that supposed to mean?” A GIF of a young girl crossly asking, “Have you lost your mind?” is paired with the law stating, “A dreadfully deformed child shall be quickly killed.” And, as was frequently the case when confronted with a lack of rights for women in the ancient world, the students included an indignant GIF in response to the law, “Females should remain in guardianship even when they have attained their majority.” The GIF of Watson from the show Sherlock shakes his head and flashing text reads #OH HELL NO.

The GIFs accompanying the students’ examples from the Twelve Tables revealed students’ reactions to the historical content they studied. Under the guise of entertaining readers, students circumvented my cautions against personal or emotive reactions in the blog posts. They left these reactions out of the text and instead used GIFs to communicate their responses. In doing so, students utilized the subversive potential in GIFs, as outlined by White and Brown in their studies of GIF use by Jezebel commenters and KBURD critiques on Tumblr. The students’ resistance did not carry the same gravitas as GIF users who critique social ills, but students nonetheless utilized GIFs in a way that resisted the structure in which they completed their task.

GIFs when words are inadequate

In the case of “Class Conflict in Rome,” students used GIFs to communicate emotions because the text was an inappropriate vehicle for processing their responses to the Twelve Tables due to the boundaries I placed on students’ writing. In other instances, students found words inadequate for communicating their sentiments. Consequently, they used GIFs to express honesty, nuance, or intuitive understandings of course material.

The #participlan tweets submitted by students at the beginning of the semester illustrate the inadequacy of tweet text to express students’ feelings about class participation. @nuraatiqahhh’s tweet, for example, reads: “I will try to voice out my thoughts and ideas & attempt to answer questions. I tend to be quiet but i’ll try my best!” This is a relatively positive tweet and clearly articulates the student’s plans to participate in the course. There’s some hint of the difficulty posed by their plan (“I tend to be quiet but…”), but the student nevertheless communicates their willingness to try.

The GIF in the tweet expresses something entirely different. Sheldon, the young, nerdy protagonist of The Big Bang Theory, anxiously breathes into a paper bag. Although @nuraatiqahhh’s tweet text was fairly positive, the GIF communicates fear instead of hopefulness regarding class participation. Given the embodiment and intensity of the GIF, the overall impression is that the image may contain a more honest expression of the student’s thoughts.

In other cases, a GIF repeats the idea expressed in the tweet text but adds nuance. Responding to a peer’s assessment of the Epic of Gilgamesh, @BillyTcrypto wrote: “what I think is that Gilgamesh killed Humbaba while seeking for immortality hence angering the gods? Maybe.” Alone, the text communicates uncertainty. The accompanying GIF reiterates @BillyTcrypto’s hesitance, but adds a layer of nuance.

The flailing arms of the man in the GIF express not just uncertainty, but floundering unsureness. While the question mark and “maybe” in the tweet text signaled hesitance, the tweet text alone did not capture not the degree of uncertainty experienced by @BillyTcrypto. The GIF accompanied the text in order to express a nuance for which words alone appeared in adequate.

Inadequate words, innovative history

Occasionally, students used GIFs to not to make their tweets more honest or nuanced, but to communicate intuitive, innovative understandings of course material. GIFs can carry multiple meanings simultaneously; Miltner and Highfield call this capacity “symbolic complexity.” The repetition inherent in GIFs contributes to the images’ complexity and affords the possibility of communicating multiple interpretations as the image loops continuously.

The symbolic complexity of GIFs was especially useful to students as they worked through philosophical primary sources for the course. Following our discussion of sections from a recent translation of the Daodejing, @valennyy tweeted a GIF of a hedgehog floating on its back in a bathtub. They paired the GIF with a reiteration of a comment I made summing up the Daodejing: “@helloworldciv said, ‘Dao is not so much something you get, but something you experience’.”

The GIF cannot stand entirely alone. Without @valennyy’s text, it is just a cute animal GIF. Combined with the concept expressed in the tweet text, though, the GIF communicates much that the words alone cannot. The floating hedgehog, read in light of the Daodejing, embodies the core concept of wu wei (无为), translated as “non-action” or “not-doing.” The concept is complex, but essentially wu wei connotes the practice of letting things be and choosing not to interfere. A hedgehog, floating in the gentle current of the bathtub, is a surprisingly apt encapsulation of wu wei.

Or at least this was my initial reading of the GIF, so I followed up with a question for @valennyy: “I like the ambiguity of this GIF. Has the hedgehog given up in confusion? Or [is it] lying down, centered and at peace?” @valennyy confirmed the image represented key themes from of the Daodejing: “it is both and it is none. There are no definitions, for it is just ‘being’ 😊.” The GIF expressed what words could not: early Daoism’s valued going with the flow and insisted that all things are “both/and” and not “either/or.” The hedgehog GIF communicated @valennyy’s intuitive comprehension of the Daodejing in a way that was simultaneously more efficient and complex than 140 characters of tweet text allowed.


  1. See The Attention Economy & Historical Significance: Agency & Attention in the Blogging Project.

  2. Detenber, Simons, and Bennett, “Roll ’em!: The Effects of Picture Motion on Emotional Responses”; Bakhshi et al., “Fast, Cheap, and Good”; Jiang, Fiesler, and Brubaker, “‘The Perfect One’: Understanding Communication Practices and Challenges with Animated GIFs.”

  3. There were exceptions of course. One student, for instance, noted that a specific GIF featuring Shia LeBeouf made them laugh: “And the GIFs! Those were really amusing. (The Shia Labeouf one got me HAHA)” (Fiona, Greek Colonisation). But this level of specificity about the GIF’s content was uncommon.

  4. Huber, “Remix Culture & The Reaction GIF.”

  5. Brown, “Everyday Iʼm Tumblinʼ: Performing Online Identity through Reaction GIFs”; Jiang, Fiesler, and Brubaker, “‘The Perfect One’: Understanding Communication Practices and Challenges with Animated GIFs”; Samermit, “GIF Me a Break.”

  6. Original tweet no longer available. ID: 828832784739246080

  7. Original tweet no longer available. ID: 856730559426330624

  8. See Methodology: Data Collection for description of rotating schedule for Primary Source Tweets.

  9. See The Attention Economy & Historical Significance: Explanations of Significance.

  10. The Egyptians believed the soul was divided into multiple, discrete parts. Each portion of the soul served a different role. The ba was the animating force of the soul while the ka represented a sort of shadow self, shaped for the individual at birth and persisting into the afterlife.

  11. Jeremy Cherng, “Greek Colonisation,” Mar 19, 2017. Accessed Mar 9, 2019.

  12. See Affect & Historical Empathy.

  13. Jiang, Fiesler, and Brubaker, “‘The Perfect One’: Understanding Communication Practices and Challenges with Animated GIFs,” 4.

  14. Samermit notes that acronyms like “smh” are common in text messages and likely developed as a substitute for the non-verbal cues that would usually accompany face-to-face communication. Samermit, “GIF Me a Break,” 22.

  15. See “Historical Empathy in this Study” in Affect & Historical Empathy: Existing Research.

  16. Joselin Leong, “Class Conflict in Ancient Rome,” Feb 26, 2017. Accessed Mar 9, 2019.

  17. White, “GIFs from Feminists;” Brown, “Everyday I’m Tumblin’.”

  18. For their #participlan tweets, I asked students to tell me how they hoped to participate in the course throughout the semester but did not provide any instructions for communicating how students felt about participation. Consequently, students sometimes completed the assigned task in their tweet text but also added a GIF to signal the emotions participating in class inspired.

  19. Miltner and Highfield, “Never Gonna GIF You Up,” 3.

  20. Daoism’s most recognizable symbol is the yin/yang in which light and darkness encircle each other.