In a Giffy

GIF is an acronym for “graphics interchange format”. More colloquially files of the .gif format are referred to simply as “gifs”. Gif  is pronounced “jif” according to the creators of the file format although there are some factions of the internet that refute this and argue it ought to be pronounced with a hard  “g” as in “gift” or “garbage” (Gross). Although it is an image format visually it looks like video: a series of images are compiled which when viewed at a high enough rate produce a short, looped scene. A gif may then be thought of as a the digital equivalent of a flip book.

The specific phenomenon I wish to address is the use of gifs in place of conversational text, specifically on the social media blogging platform known as Tumblr (stylized as “tumblr”).

Gifs have commonly been used on Tumblr since its founding in 2007 for a variety of purposes (Perez). Only recently however was this common usage reflected in Tumblr’s set up: an update in 2015 added an option to add gifs into texts posts via Tumblr’s own search engine (Perez). The file  type may be shared for humour, aesthetic, or informative purposes. Other times, scenes from television or film are arranged and captioned below with a user’s analysis or of those scenes. Tumblr not only allows .gif files in photo posts but also within text posts or the text sections below other kinds of posts. Gifs then are sometimes used convey emotions, thoughts, and feelings of the original poster (the OP) and rebloggers in response to the preceding material. They may be used alongside or in place of text. Gifs may also contain text in the form of subtitles or actually be text (ie. the spinning image of a 3D word).

 It is these gifs that serve a kind of speech/reaction purpose that I wish to examine. These gifs contribute to creating a kind of “live” interaction between two parties, a trait previously believed to belong to oral speech. Digital text can increasingly mimic live conversation and one means by which this is achieved is with the use of .gif files.

In  chapter four of Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy, he discusses the differences between oral speech and text. Particularly he discusses how oral speech is seen as alive and text as dead. He writes that a text, “says exactly the same thing as before”, and that it cannot be refuted, because nothing short of destroying the medium can remove its falsehood (Ong 78). Text in Ong’s view takes on a kind of dead-immortality. It is static, unchanging where as oral speech however, has a speaker who can be challenged and refuted in real time (Ong 78).

But technology has thrown a bit of a kink onto these views of speech and text.  Radio for example would remove the live “give-and-take between real persons” in oral speech (Ong 78). Digital text on the other hand now allows the near immediate exchanges of speaker and listener (ie. Facebook or text messages).The immediacy of reply and response that digital platforms afford is one way in which text has been utilized to be more like live oral exchanges.

The increasing ability to display text in a variety of ways  is another means by which technology has allowed text to become more like speech. An example of this is the use of italics to indicate a verbal stress either on a word or within a word. Capital letters indicate loudness. Bold text also transmits a kind of tone. Yet, these all remain visual cues devoid of any audible sound. The result is a text that dictates to the reader how this would be said if being said out loud. Again, digital writing upsets some of the previous arguments that once held oral speech over text.

Gifs take the ‘oralization’ of digital text to another level through the use of gestures. Oral speech, when live between people, is also performance. As a performance between live persons, oral speech also contains non-verbal cues such as gesturing. Winking, smiling, frowning, dance etc., can all alter the meaning of a sentences being communicated. Gesturing alone can communicate joy or sadness, interest or disbelief. Instead of typing “lol”, a gif of a person laughing may be used. Depending on the gif used all sorts of additional tone and mood can be communicated, almost as if you were there in person reacting to a situation. In this sense, gifs contribute a liveliness to digital conversations. On the other hand, a gif is  also ‘looped’: it repeats itself over and over again. In this way, a gif is similar to text in its “rigid visual fixity”, its ability to stay the same (Ong 80). So while digital texts and gifs use aspects of oral in-person speech to communicate additional meanings/tones/feelings, they still remain fixed visual symbols.

Let us examine an example below. Tumblr user “zoephoebe” self-identified as “Zoe” on her blog,  responds to an anonymous person’s “ask”. An “ask” is what submitted questions on Tumblr are called. Zoe responds to the anonymous person (the anon) using hypertext and a gif.


[Click to enlarge] Print screened image source


The visual elements in the still screen shot stay the same as the gif: Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby in the film adaption of The Great Gatsby (2013) stands centre in a sharp black tux, smiling holding a toast toward the viewer while a lavish out of focus party goes off behind him. “See you hell” reads in large clear capital letters across the bottom of the gif.

The gif  and hypertext create meaning together. The subtitle of the gif is grammatically attached to the previous hypertext by the word “so”, so that the two different forms of text are read as one whole sentence. The text in turn transforms how we read the gif: since the hypertext is a dismissal, the following Gatsby smile appears smug rather than kind.

There are a few layers of contrast in the movement and context of the gif. The gentleness of the character’s movements are juxtaposed to the wild party in the background.  The generous smile of the character and euphoria of the party stand in contrast to damning and forbidding subtitle  as well as in contrast to subject matter of the conversation.

There may some symbolism in the gif. The wild but distant party may represent the current life of the poster, or indicate that user “Zoephoebe” is having a good time in general, but it may also represent the hell spoken of. A kind of irony occurs in this case: hell is supposed to be frightening, but if the background party is “hell” then the anon’s threat rings fairly empty.  Additional symbolism is present in that “Zoephoebe” is represented by Gatsby: viewers are encouraged to read Zoe as someone suave, secure, and stylish.

It is important to note than the use of the gif is more about the moment or scene expressed rather than some deeper symbolic meaning. For example, it is unlikely that “Zoephoebe” was thinking about the implications of using Gatsby or attempting to refer to the ‘meanings’ in The Great Gatsby in order to construct some response (occasionally this is done but it is not how gifs are usually used). Instead a gif is chosen for the meaning most readily available to the average viewer who may be ignorant of the gif’s origins. The purpose of the gif is to communicate clearly and so the most ‘obvious’ meanings are the ones effectively communicated in an exchange.

The gif could just as easily be replaced by a static image of the same scene but the motion, the central aspect of what makes a gif a gif, adds a sense of vivacity to the reply. Hence, the gif transmits  both the immediacy of a live exchange. The use of a humanoid character (Leo/Gatsby) also creates that sense of realness. In this way digital text is enhanced and transformed by another visual technology (the gif) to replace text that would have been necessary to create the same “tone” of response. Instead, the details of the gif speak volumes about mood, and tone, or how the poster wishes to portray themselves. In other words, it says a lot, in a giffy.

Word Count: 1307

Works Cited

Gross, Doug. “It’s Settled! Creator Tells Us How to Pronounce ‘GIF'” CNN. Cable

News Network, 22 May 2013. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

Perez, Sarah. “Tumblr Debuts Its Own GIF Search Engine.” TechCrunch. AOL Inc., 4

June 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Ong, Walter J. “Writing Restructures Consciousness.” Orality and Literacy: The

Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis

Group, 1982. 77-114. Print.

Zoephoebe. “I Just Don’t Think Gay People Will Be Allowed into.” Interview by

Anonymous. Web log post. Qwerty It.,. Ed. Rincat21. Tumblr, 16 July 2014. Web.

26 Sept. 2015. <



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