A Brief History of GIFs
In “A Brief History of the GIF (so far),” Jason Eppink details key events in the development of the GIF. In 1987, Steve Wilhite developed the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) while employed by CompuServe. The file format did not initially enable animation, but with the introduction of animation in 1989, early internet developers quickly adopted GIFs for their websites. The files required little bandwidth and could be created and shared for free. The popularity of GIFs persisted until 1995 when rumors circulated that GIFs would be copyrighted and sold. The call went out to “Burn all GIFs” as users abandoned the file format in favor of the still-free PNG and JPG image formats.
GIFs resurfaced as a well-loved file format on MySpace in the early 2000s where users took advantage of loopholes in the platform’s code to create their own “glitter GIFs.” When Tumblr arrived on the scene in 2007, the popularity of the files exploded again. The platform allowed the use of larger GIFs than MySpace and enabled GIF searches through the #GIF tag. Tumblr, then Vine, Instagram, and BuzzFeed, created spaces for users to play with and develop new uses for GIFs.
Today, the “reaction GIF,” popularized in part by the Tumblr WhatShouldWeCallMe in which text or text and image are used to express a reaction to a situation, is perhaps the most pervasive. Eppink also cites wobble GIFs and cinemagraphs as recent developments in GIF creation. Some users (like Kajetan Obarski on Tumblr) still create their own GIFs by layering images, but users usually pull clips from shows and films. This trend has further democratized the use of GIFs as recording a clip from a show requires little time and few specialized skills.
GIFs Impact Attention
GIFs attract attention easily, but the viewer isn’t always fully aware of how or why their attention has been captured. Existing research on GIFs indicates the files appeal to users in part because humans are attracted to motion. We show a decided preference for moving over static images. The number of pixels, speed, length, and presence or absence of faces also impacts whether a user chooses to interact with or share an animated image. Additionally, our attention once captured is sustained by the sheer convenience of GIFs. The lack of sound, which makes GIFs discrete to consume on mobile devices and in public, and the minimal time required to interact with a GIF maintains our focus on an image.
Unnoticed elements of GIFs exert force not only on our attention but also our emotional responses to and interpretations of GIFs. When Detenber, Simons, and Bennett compared participants’ responses to static versus moving forms of the same image, the researchers found that motion increased the emotional intensity of viewers’ reactions. Moving images heightened both positive and negative responses. Jiang, Brubaker, and Fiesler similarly discovered the duration of GIFs impacted the number of interpretations from viewers. Longer GIFs earned more diverse interpretations from viewers than shorter GIFs and GIFs perceived as positive varied more widely than GIFs seen as negative.
GIF Uses: Affect, Affinity, and Body Politics
Emotion vs Affective Expression: Individual Motivation for GIF Use
Users may not be fully conscious of how GIFs attract our attention, but a number of studies suggest this does not prevent complex reasoning about the sharing and consumption of GIFs. Chief among them is the usefulness of GIFs for emotional expression. Emoticons or emojis are emotive too, but GIFs offer something more. Linda Huber calls GIFs “uber-emoji:” images that offer emotional expression, but also include bodily gestures capable of communicating a more nuanced range of emotions.
While “emotion” captures an essential aspect of GIFs, some authors theorize the embodied emotions communicated in GIFs are better described as “
Developing Affinity: GIF Use In Community
Web users most frequently use GIFs to express individual affective reactions, but rarely share a GIF without an intended or imagined audience in mind. Consequently, interpreting GIFs is an inherently communal process. Samermit theorizes that, although GIFs can be passively received and interpreted as intended, viewers of GIFs are more often involved in “actively negotiating the conveyed emotion” in the GIFs. Jiang, Fiesler, and Brubaker also found senders are conscious of the negotiated nature of GIFs. The college students who participated in their study considered their own perspective as well as the that of the person receiving a GIF. Participants chose GIFs they felt confident would be interpreted correctly and would be pleasurable for the recipient. At times they also decided not to send a GIF if they felt it would fail to communicate their intention or emotion.
Jiang, Fiesler, and Brubaker’s participants illustrated Kanai’s assertion that accurate interpretation of GIFs requires specific literacies, including a keen comprehension of context. Humor especially often depends on shared life experience and context. Kanai argues the meme and Tumblr WhatShouldWeCallMe, for instance, is best understood by “middle-class, youthful, White, feminine” subjects who share the post-feminist, post-racial perspectives of the Tumblr’s creators. Similarly, WhatShouldWeCallGradSchool appeals primarily to masters and doctoral students in the sciences and humanities.
Miltner and Highford likewise argue that shared context is essential to understanding GIFs. GIFs are frequently decontextualized when images are wrenched from their original context, so comprehending the meaning of a GIF requires knowledge of where it came from and what it means in a new context. To grasp an image’s meaning, a viewer might engage their understanding of the original source material, their knowledge of how the GIF circulated online, or what they know about the GIF sender. Yet comprehending a GIF in one context (e.g., a text message) does not guarantee comprehension of the same GIF in another context (e.g., a Reddit thread). The looping repetition and constant movement of GIFs from one online space to another means GIFs offer “different meanings and interpretations to different audiences.”
Due to the decontextualized and fluid meanings of GIFs, miscommunication abounds. Yet this does not deter users from employing GIFs, as sharing GIFs with people who “get it” can be a highly pleasurable experience. Indeed, GIF sharing drives many affinity spaces online. James Paul Gee and Henry Jenkins define “affinity” as shared passion expressed in a dedicated space, typically online. Affinity groups coalesce around a collective identity grounded in shared knowledge or love of specific material while affinity spaces represent participatory, online locations in which to revel in this material. Gee and Jenkins’s work broadly follows the creation of affinity spaces by fans and subcultures online, but affinity spaces can be found on dedicated Reddit threads or discrete but enthusiastic Twitter exchanges.
Katherine Brown’s analysis of Sherlockians, fans of the BBC show Sherlock, on Tumblr illustrates the common culture of an affinity group. Sherlockians populate their Tumblr sites with GIFs of favorite scenes from the show alongside favorite quotes and fan theories, but also adapt clips to explore personal fantasies and fan theories. Members of the affinity group commonly remix GIFs to form slash fiction featuring Sherlock and Watson and use the remixes to explore romantic love and relationships. These personal fantasies are developed by individuals, but do not remain private. Instead, other Sherlockians expand on and incorporate remixes into the affinity group’s canon.
Politicizing the GIF: Resistance & Critique
Critiquing Culture: Resisting Patriarchy and Racism
GIFs facilitate social bonding between individuals and within affinity groups, but the file format can also contribute to the more serious work of political resistance and social critique. Michele White outlines the uses of GIFs in the comments sections of Jezebel, a popular feminist website aimed at twenty- and thirty-something women. White argues that commenters employ GIFs on Jezebel because GIFs “enable expressions of
Brown’s analysis of KBURD (“K but u
Critiquing GIFs: Identity Tourism & Digital Blackface
Web users generally assume that GIFs’ adaptability means any image, regardless of content, can be used by anyone. This assumption is problematic precisely because GIFs contain embodied emotion. Using moving images to communicate emotion means taking on another person’s body for that purpose. The practice can perpetuate systemic injustices, especially racism, sexism, and
The embodiment problem is not unique to GIFs. Lisa Nakamura’s work in Cybertypes and Digitizing Race explores the attractions and issues surrounding “identity tourism” in mass open online (MOO) games. Nakamura is critical of users who adopt marginalized identities because the practice frequently reinforces stereotypes without requiring users to suffer the effects of those stereotypes in real life. A white male player may adopt the identity of an Asian female without the need to navigate the consequences of the stereotypes of Asian women as submissive and sexually available. By contrast, Asian and/or female players experience their real-life identities as potentially dangerous to their safety online. They typically do not reveal their race or gender in order to avoid harassment from other players.
Researcher Joshua Green and journalist Lauren Michele Jackson identify similar complications in web users’ utilization of GIFs representing persons of color. Employing the term “digital blackface,” Green and Jackson criticize stereotypical portrayals of black men and women in popular media. In his 2006 master’s thesis, Green connects the tradition of blackface minstrelsy in theatre, radio, and television to portrayals of black men and black masculinity in the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Digital blackface, Green argues, is an outgrowth of post-Civil War blackface on stage, but takes things one step further. In a game like GTA: SA, blackface isn’t just represented. It’s simulated. The player becomes the character and consequently engages in actions that perpetuate dehumanizing stereotypes about black poverty, sexuality, and violence.
Jackson extends Green’s critique of simulation to GIFs. “Digital blackface,” she argues “uses the relative anonymity of online identity to embody blackness.” In some cases, this involves a prolonged, simulated embodiment but, more frequently, digital blackface appears in ostensibly harmless GIFs. White women and men’s use of black embodiments reinforces stereotypes about the intensity and extremity of black emotion especially. Jackson writes:
“While reaction GIFs can and do every feeling under the sun, white and nonblack users seem to especially prefer GIFs with black people when it comes to emitting their most exaggerated emotions. Extreme joy, annoyance, anger and occasions for drama and gossip are a magnet for images of black people, especially black femmes.”Jackson, “We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs.”
The continued association between black women and men and extreme emotions or behaviors has consequences beyond the web. Jackson connects digital blackface to consistent police suspicion and violence against black teens and adults for actions that would not be perceived as disruptive if enacted by a white person. Her analysis echoes Green’s argument that images of black men and women in games and GIFs are “the socially constructed veneer of blackness that reaffirms mainstream beliefs about black masculinity and crime.” Dehumanizing representations online and in games contribute to violence, marginalization, and oppression in the real world.