Choose GIF

Great on Smart Phones

This article, number four in a series on ways we communicate digitally, looks at the Graphic Interchange Format (GIF).

The creators of the format pronounced the word as “jif” with a soft “G” as in “gym”…CompuServe employees would often say “Choosy developers choose GIF”, spoofing this brand’s television commercials. The word is now also widely pronounced with a hard “G” /ɡɪf/ as in “gift”.

“It’s Pronounced ‘JIF’ not ‘GIF.’” (Steve Whilhite inventor of GIF)

Wikipedia & The New York Times

What is a GIF?

GIF was created in 1987 by Steve Whilhite and a team of developers at CompuServe, many years before we all started using the Internet. GIF is a compression technique that greatly reduces the file size of images and series of images. (The GIF below is around 250 kb in size, as opposed to 39 MB in the original video.) GIF restricts the color palette and minimizes the number of pixels while maintaining remarkable clarity.

The first GIFs started showing up on websites in the mid-1990s as primitive stand-ins for video. Try to remember how slow the Internet was, even into the early 2000s. Video requires a lot of bandwidth, making it rare, even impossible, to use in the dial-up and early broadband eras.

Initially, GIF was limited to connecting individual frames of photos. Today we have animated GIF. Which uses another technology—Graphic Control Extension (GCE)—that allows us to seamlessly connect multiple images and facilitate the creation of GIFs from video.

Animated GIF is a natural fit for super-powerful smart phones and super-fast mobile networks. They’ve become so popular that Apple and Android phones contain libraries of GIFs for users to effortlessly insert into texts, in the same way they might insert a photo or an emoji.

The language of GIFs

GIFS have some of the same characteristics as memes. (More on Memes.) They’re usually created by repurposing existing images or film. They fall into various genre—like “face palm,” which we’ll consider below. And they are additives to text messages designed to either augment or replace actual writing.

Tracking GIF usage gives us insights into the language of images/video and other non-verbal cues. As mentioned in a previous article, linguists and other communication scholars are trying to understand the evolving shared-syntaxes and grammars guiding digital conversations.

The most popular GIFs repurpose movies, television and other well-known video. Some media scholars have used this as an opportunity to find out how non-academic audiences critique film scenes.

GIFs captured from movies and television function as vernacular criticism, capturing and recycling favorite moments that audiences love or worship, or that express a particular feeling or experience.

Like memes and other online expressions of community through media appropriation and circulation, GIFs are examples of vernacular creativity among groups of users with shared interests and reference points. 

These online social worlds are not usually academic, but they are not so different from scholarly communities either. Like film and television scholars, online fans are also dedicated to the analysis, critique, and appreciation of media.

Newman, M. 2016

Another interesting line of study around GIFs is as packets of human emotion. Researchers at MIT study participants’ reactions to GIFs to create data sets that aid artificial learning (Chen, W. & R. Picard, 2016). The idea is that certain visual cues found in GIFs trigger universal emotional responses and those connections can be taught to machines to help the machines read human faces and actions. (I just hope they don’t use a lot of Three Stooges GIFs. Thirty years from now, I don’t want some nursing home robot hitting me on the head with a hammer to cheer me up.)

How we use GIFs

We insert GIFs into text messages as visual stand-ins for emotion, connection, excitement, agreement and many other various non-verbal cues.

The GIFs themselves are used to reproduce actions that in face-to-face conversation do not require demonstration. Such embodied actions in talk are implicated in the construction and negotiation of stance and emotion.

For example, embodied displays such as sighs can be used as third-position responses, indicating negative affect. Smiles and nods, when produced by listeners, are affiliative and allow interlocutors to negotiate a shared interpretation of the content of the talk.

Beyond displaying emotion, the body may be used to demonstrate behaviors. Gesture and facial expressions commonly depict actions in talk. These gestures may co-occur with a verbal description, but they may also be part of a composite structure in which the syntactic organization of a turn projects completion through the body 

Tolens, J. & Samermit p. 77

GIFs take the place of communicative elements that are challenging to write (especially within the limits of a SMS texting app). Even the most skilled writers would have difficulty capturing exasperation in a few lines of text. GIFs make it possible for all of us to have richer and more impactful “written” interactions.

The Face Palm GIF

Let’s briefly consider a specific genre, the “face palm” GIF. People, (and sometimes cats) move their hands to their faces for various reasons—shock, disgust, embarrassment, agitation, etc. This signal is also very common in stage and screen acting as a way to dramatize emotion.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that “face palm” has become a thing in GIFs. I don’t think the following GIFs need a lot of extra explanation. Just think about how you might insert any of these into a text message as response or to make a point and you’ll get the GIFs.

Feigned “face palm” reaction; Classic Picard move.
Real time “face palm” reaction. Ouch! that’s a Ferrari!
Real time “face palm” reaction; “How do I tell Gisselle?”
Real time “face palm” reaction; Rebecca is embarrassed, not disgusted.
Real time “face paw.” Exasperated or exhausted kitty?

Viral “face palm.”
Feigned “face palm” reaction; animated expresion.
Poorly feigned “face palm” reaction; the author has had enough.

In the next article, we’ll look at emoji and emoticons as we continue our series on digital communication. 🙃 Thanks for reading.


Chen, W., & Picard, R.W. “Predicting Perceived Emotions in Animated GIFs with 3D Convolutional Neural Networks.” IEEE International Symposium on Multimedia. (2016).

Eppink, J. “A Brief History of the GIF (So Far),” Journal of Visual Culture 13 (December 2014): 298-306.

Newman, M. “GIFs: The Attainable Text.” University of Michigan Publishing. (2016).

Oleary, Amy. An Honor for the Creator of the GIF. New York Times, Bits Blog. (2013).

Tolins, J. & Samermit, P. “GIFs as Embodied Enactments in Text-Mediated Conversation.” Research on Language and Social Interaction, Vol. 49, 2 (April 2016), 75–91.

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