Blog Post

Internet Hieroglyphics, Part 1: Hard Gs, Loops, and Speculative Designs, Oh My!

Welcome to the first installation of Internet Hieroglyphics, a blog series that aims to flesh out the contributions to the digital denizen's affective toolbox made by the unique symbolic and visual modes of communication commonly used in digital communication. This category includes emoticons, emojis, non-looping reaction images and can arguably be extended to include short videos. However, this series will primarily focus on the new mode of communication that is perhaps most unique to and exemplary of the present moment: The Reaction Gif. 
First order of business: It’s pronounced with a Hard G. (I feel no need to justify this objectively correct statement, but if forced to, I would make an argument along the lines of this one.)
Now that that’s settled, let’s begin. What is an animated GIF capable of and, most critically, why should we care?  The GIF is many things, a new type of short form cinema and popular medium for net art amongst them, but most critically for this series, it is a new mode of communication marked by its capability to compress emotional affect even more efficiently than it does file size. The GIF is useful for decorative, artisticeducational, comedic, and journalistic purposes, but its use as a conversational device for expression and communication is perhaps the most interesting. Take for example this popular Tumblr post. This use of Orange is the New Black's Sophia Burset (played by the inimitable Laverne Cox) to express one’s distaste for traditional catchphrases of the heteropatriarchy’s gatekeepers has been liked or reblogged over 600,000 times. What could have been a simple, boring text post has been made more relatable and engaging, allowing a post with a fairly progressive queer perspective go semi-viral. Importantly, through the use of a (perhaps the) preeminent face of the modern transgender rights movement this message has been explicitly framed as relevant to the transgender community. This is productive, in that it re-centers LGBTQA+ politics on the frequently silenced and cruelly marginalized Trans community, but also rhetorically dangerous as it could and should be argued that an 18-year old cisgender white girl should not be purporting to speak from the perspective of a transgender black woman. In a later post I plan to work out a sort of identity politics centered Best Practices for GIF use centered on a discussion of what has been thought-provokingly termed “Digital Blackface.” For this post’s purposes however, the potential for the reaction GIF to express solidarity and forcibly change the assumed subject (despite the fact that the newly projected subject is not actually present) is key. The above example only succeeds, is affectively effective, because of the author’s knowledge of western pop culture and their affective literacy. The ability to understand what a reaction gif is trying to say, in this case varying degrees of surprised disappointment, is not universal, especially as they begin to rely on an understanding of both mainstream pop culture and the various meme dialects on different websites. 
Unlike static emoticons and emojis, the GIF’s unique affective efficacy is closely tied to its looping, infinite nature. After all, despite the fact that GIFs were not originally intended to loop continuously, it is this feature that has become their most salient characteristic. In the evocatively titled “The Wheel of the Devil,” Chris Baraniuk raises some valid questions about the nature of the loop in GIFs as well as in another looping wunderkind in the memetic digital communication toolbox, Vine. He suggests that the loop is “inherently comical and absurd,” but also that it can be “cruel.” Using this fairly typical caught-on-security-camera pratfall GIF as an example WM. Ferguson calls to attention the discomfort one may experience at the sense of gratification they receive from watching "a loop of one poor liquor-store customer, doomed, like Sisyphus, to fall endlessly through the same trap door.” Further, the GIFs ability to infinitely repeat immensely gratifying bits of longer bits is one of the most suggested causes for their potentially addictive nature, especially in regards to the increasingly popular invention of “GIF Porn.”  Later in this series I plan to explore these ideas, in regards to both GIFs and Vine, and flesh out more questions the infinite loop raises. In particular, I am intrigued in the interplay and synergy between the unending loop of the GIF and the infinite scroll of the Tumblr dashboard.
Beyond working towards a "Theory Of” the GIF, this series will also aim to explore and eventually develop speculative design projects centered around GIFs, GIF culture, and the affective potential of symbolic and visual communication on the internet. Of particular relevance is GIFGIF, a project by MIT students that plans to explore the “magic” (unique affective potential) of GIFs through quantitative research. They have created a public API with all of the metrics, results, and data collected, which can be and is already being used for research into the affective potential of a single gif, (e.g. How many emotions can a single GIF convey?) as well as for design projects such as this Text to Gif translator that uses the data from a separate API to determine the sentiment of a block of text and then provides you with a GIF that has been found to convey the same sentiment. Based on that translator’s results this paragraphs is hilarious. Other GIFGIF design applications include facial expression to GIF search engine MirrorMirror. John Brownlee of Fast Company Design has suggested an "infinitely nuanced emoji library, with a custom GIF for every conceivable emotion you want to express.” Though emoticons and emojis had previously been a far more practical tool for communication on mobile devices, PopKey is looking to expand the territory of the GIF with their new GIF keyboard (an application only made possible iOS 8’s Extensions feature, which allows app developers to create third party keyboard applications for the iPhone.) Other potential uses for this data include an app inspired by Joanne McNeil’s “Gmail Emotional Labor” project that would read the sentiment of an email and spruce it up, instead of merely translating it, with GIFs.
Though I am interested in the topics discussed above and absolutely plan to address many of them, this series will be heavily inflected by the topics discuss in this course and, as such, could differ wildly from what I have proposed above. If anyone is specifically interested in any of the above questions or has suggestions for topics to explore or resources to use, please comment with them below! (You are encouraged, nay, beeseeched to use GIFs in your responses. Be creative!)

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