Meditation on the Gif
Meditation on the Gif
October 1, 2012

Gifs, gifs, everywhere. Once the sole reserve of back-alley Internet forums and Geocity websites, gifs are enjoying a new legitimacy at the helm of the New York Times, the Atlantic, and most recently, Barack Obama’s email campaign. I want to argue that this represents not just the evolution of the gif, but the evolution of language itself.

In real life, we’ve got eyebrows and vocal dynamics that help supplement our English. We don’t have any of that online. English itself is learning what it means to be “web scale”, as a tool that was never designed for the type of heavy written use that it’s seeing today. Like the rest of the Internet, English itself needs to be faster, more efficient, and easier to use if it’s to function as a high-speed communication tool.

Gifs are an evolution of the written word. They’re the online equivalent of the body language we use in the physical world. The gif occupies the space between adjectives and primal emotions, the nuanced lexical crevices for which English is too unwieldy. Pasting a gif doesn’t require any contrived verbiage, and unlike regular words, a gif is not likely to be skimmed over.

Coupled with ease and visibility is efficacy. There is nothing as lexically powerful as a well placed gif. A good gif is like a timeless poem: concise, elegant, canonical. It’s communication in the raw - it’s a man clapping furiously in a theater, it’s a bus barreling the wrong way through traffic, it’s the simple proclamation that ain’t nobody’s got time for that.

What exactly is it about these Internet oddities that make them so effective? Is it the way they animate without any interaction? Frictionless communication - they mirror written words that way. But they have a dynamism that English can never capture. Unlike their physical analogues, body language and facial expressions, they are constantly being invented and refined as our written language grows to fit its new online aquarium.

Any discussion of gifs must also include video, from which most modern gifs originate. The process by which a gif becomes incorporated as canon starts with a video, presumably one that goes viral. I might even propose a principle by which any online video that captures a sufficient amount of our collective online attention will be eventually distilled into a gif. Perhaps, as the saying goes, inside every video is a small video trying to get out: a small gem that will inevitably be excavated, polished, and set free as another atomic piece of our language.

But gifs are so much more than video. They aren’t far off from J.K. Rowling’s magical moving photos. A proper gif is capable of surviving alone in the chaotic online environment, but despite their hardiness, they are not to be consumed by themselves. Gifs are conversational condiments; they’re like the ketchup, salt, and pepper that are guaranteed at any real-life meal. They become our anchors as we spend more and more time online. They are bundled with comfort, familiarity, and nostalgia. I’ve seen you before.

The English we speak was more or less spoken by Shakespeare five hundred years ago. But note that Shakespeare’s English is vastly improved from his forebear Chaucer, who lived just 150 years earlier. Why the leap? The printing press began to see heavy use between the eras of the two writers. Suddenly, English had to do what it’s doing once again: upgrade itself to meet its new usage demands. It had to be portable, universal, concise, and readable. Blackletter was let go; standard spellings were brought in. A dictionary was written, first in 1600 by Robert Cawdrey, and then definitively in the mid 18th century by Samuel Johnson.

We then saw English stagnate for three hundred years. A couple of words here and there in response to the times, but nothing fundamental. It would take something as monumental as the printing press to again accelerate the development of our language, and if you’re reading this, you’re probably using it right now.

So here we are. The Internet. English on nuclear steroids. Gifs, one the grotesque hairy limbs that our language develops in response to its forced growth. Gavage the language like a duck, and you get gifs instead of foie gras. As long as our Internet continues to proliferate and see heavier and heavier use, our language will grow alongside it.