[GLOBAL CREMIT] “GIF’s Anatomy”. Explaining the Intrinsic Communicative Power of GIFs

di Elisa Farinacci

[GLOBAL CREMIT] “GIF’s Anatomy”. Explaining the Intrinsic Communicative Power of GIFs

[GLOBAL CREMIT] “GIF’s Anatomy”. Explaining the Intrinsic Communicative Power of GIFs

As we can see every day just opening Facebook, Twitter and any other social media, our walls are filled with GIFs about a lot of different topics and utilized in equally assorted situations and ways. At a first sight, GIFs seem to be very simple digital objects, and even quite obsolete considering their first appearance in the late Eighties.[i] However, their use and frequency in the internet communications are constantly developing and expanding among a variegated target of people. GIFs, especially those having as originating from popular culture material, have become pervasive and ubiquitous, they are, as stated by Sally McKay, “simultaneously “in your face” and in your mind, their affects continuous with the immersive experience of daily internet use”.[ii] It is not a novelty, after all, that those images, sounds, quotes, frames and scenarios belonging to mass-consumed culture and mainstream forms of entertainment have been recycled by users in their own private communicative practices. Since modernist bricolage to post-modern exercises of intertextuality, the act of decomposing a text and recomposing its fragments in unexpected ways and through new media and formats is a consolidated tradition. However, it is undeniable that the participatory culture in which we live nowadays, insisting by definition on aspects such as user’s active participation, creativity, artistic self-expression and appropriation[iii] of media contents, has exponentially improved and amplified the relevance of these exercises, making them more accessible and common than ever. This entanglement and direct proportional connection between digital media, convergence culture, intertextuality, and remix practices[iv] which following Anna Everett we can call “digitextuality”,[v] has considerably fostered the creation and circulation of GIFs and exponentially increased their remarkable impact on everyday communication performances. This is especially true considering the so called “reaction GIFs”, those animated clips, usually taken from mainstream popular culture products (films, TV series or Tv shows) and looped in auto-play containing bodily and emotional reactions, used by people in order to communicate specific emotional states that written words would not permit.[vi] As sustained by Linda Huber, “they are used as a form of personal expression” that exploits “the content of tightly controlled mass media products” becoming “a tool for everyday interpersonal communication”.[vii]

In order to understand why these objects are so diffused and pervasive in our internet conversations we have to consider two distinctive factors, the first internal and the second external. Starting from the latter, the dynamics that make GIFs a stunning and efficient tool though which the users can immediately and easily communicate thoughts, emotional states and feelings depend on the conformation of the convergence culture in which they are inscribed. Since the participative, interconnected, interactive and even playful[viii] nature of the contemporary media environment, it is not a surprise that people feel at ease using these looped sequences, which bring with them a joyful, vernacular and frivolous form of enjoyment in nowadays communicative performances.  Due to the facility and quickness assured by new media and digital technologies in giving users the instruments through which they can appropriate popular culture contents – in primis audiovisual frames and images – GIFs are frequently and easily created, shared and put into circulation. Indeed, in this sense it is not exaggerated to invest a GIF with a memetic connotation, since it is, like the meme described by Richard Dawkins, a virally-diffused cultural or social idea[ix] spread from person to person within a culture, which people canidentify with and share inside the daily information exchange process. While memes are usually still images and GIFs are brief loops of moving images, both are “units of culture”, content items separated by their original context and appropriated and transmitted by users since they replicate themselves and proliferate in the cultural landscape. It is quite evident, then, that the functioning mechanisms operating inside GIFs, namely those that transform fragments and frames belonging to popular culture’s movies and shows into separate spreadable and sharable “units of culture”, seem to play a very important role in this process. Therefore, the second factor we will take into consideration – and that we will analyse extensively in this paper – concerns the inner construction of GIFs. The facility of their use, in fact, relies not only on the particular conformation of the contemporary remix culture, but on embedded and intrinsic features, that’s to say on their being a sort of overturned ekfrasis by which users can deliver their inner states, believes, considerations, emotions and so on by showing then describing them. In the internal functioning of GIFs, indeed, we can find the true secret that explain why and how users find these short and looped audiovisual fragments an ideal way through which interact each other in communities, chats and social media walls. GIFs, as we will see, are truly able to “steal” the original frame’s semantic and emotional load and become a vehicle to express users’ affective inclinations and thoughts. In experiencing textual contents, people explore them and select those parts and fragments they evaluate significant for their own communicative purposes. The operations of selection, extrapolation and recycle of original materials, then, are at the base of the creation of any GIF. As argued by Maria Rosaria Dagostino, the accumulation of fragments is not intended to transform images into a restful and useless “cathedral of ghosts”, but in a “receptacle of possibilities of meaning”[x] and connotations opened up to various interpretations. Hence, the communicative efficiency of GIFs is formally intrinsic and relies on its inner conformation, as well as its being inserted in a cultural and communicative environment that is quite opportune for its use.

Concentrating on the anatomy of these particular internet objects, we can detect four essential operations in order to construct a GIF. Firstly, the researching/finding of the original material, which consists in the approaching and interacting with images and frames coming from a wide range of sources, from tv series and tv shows, to films, raw footage, advertising, and so on.  Secondly, the selection/decontextualization phase occurs, where users select and pick-up portions and fragments from the initial material. During this process, a designated frame is cut-off from its legitimate space-temporal continuum and context, creating then a fresh meaningful item physically and semantically autonomous. The pulled-out frame is then repeated again and again in a loop, hence actually transformed in a GIF. The discontinuity, non-linearity and temporal repetition of the images and frames are the formal core characterizing GIFs as a format of communication through images, representing the ace in the hole of users’ practices of appropriation and semantic and/or emotional overturns. In point of fact, the third phase in the morphogenesis of a GIF consists precisely in the process of looping, where our isolated and decontextualized frame becomes a closed entity frozen in its own repetitiveness, circularity and brevity. This is perhaps the most distinguishing stage in the creation of GIFs, when the extrapolated fragments is frozen into a potentially endless cycle of repetition, into a moment, as described by Brian Massumi, “of incipience, before action is taken, before emotions qualify and retroactively determine the affect”.[xi] In the process of looping lies the peculiar ontology of GIFs, their being, as stated by Linda Huber, “a kind of phenomenological hybrid of photography and film”,[xii] since they have the brevity and immediacy of a still image, but they are actually moving images. Their limited temporal score, the short duration along with the infinite looping allow user to capture the semantic and emotional essence of the fragments. However, we must not be misled and consider this essence as necessarily monosemic and univocal. On the contrary, it is quite polysemous, meaningful and open to interpretations, as demonstrated by the many different uses and the purposes the same GIF can fulfil. Take for instance the well-known GIF with Leonardo DiCaprio’s toast. This a frame excerpt from a particular scene of The Great Gatsby’s 2013 movie adaptation, when Gatsby is mesmerizing Nick for the first time with his world of marvellous and lavish parties. However, even if the “giffed” frame is taken by a specific narrative, semantic and emotional flow, its expressivity is quite autonomous and not necessarily connected with the original source material. To put in other terms, once the frame is decontextualized and transformed into a GIF thanks to the looping process, the recognizability of frames’ provenience can be an added value in an intertextuality perspective, but it is not a categorical imperative of its usability. The particular significance and communicative power of Leonardo DiCaprio’s toast GIF changes accordingly the communicative intentions of the users: it can be employed to express the beginning of an imminent party, to congratulate with someone, to wish a happy new year, to say “well-done” as much as to make fun of someone using it in an ironic way, and so on. When frames pass from being part of a continuum to being a GIF properly defined, emotions are detoured indeed, but also re-mediated.[xiii] In every remediation, the original content, even the emotional one, adapts itself according to the features of the landing medium: in the case of GIFs, the emotional and semantic content gains brevity, circularity, autonomy and self-expressivity. Accordingly, users can exploit the communicative power of GIFs in the absence of a strict and direct connection with the source material. Sometimes this connection is useful to users in order to create a short-circuit between the original context of the frames and the communicative locus where the GIF is inserted, but most of the time it is not indispensable. Even if we don’t grasp the reference and the link between the extrapolated frames and the original context, we can pick one of the many meanings ingrained into the fragments composing the GIFs and use it to communicate a message. 

Then, the fourth step we need to consider in the anatomy of a GIF concerns the active role of the users, what we can define as appropriation: the looped fragment, stopped in a palindrome and objectified in a stable and fixed conformation by the format ‘dot-GIF’, is inserted by users in a particular context, then investing it with a new sense that can be more or less akin to the previous one. Users can recognize the source of the material and then exploit the tie-up between the original semantic and emotional charge of the fragment and the short-circuit creating by its insertion into a new situation. Otherwise, users can be unaware of the connection and just exploit one of the multiple connotations inscribed in the looped fragments and assign it a specific emotional and semantic value. In both cases, the key point is that users appropriate the GIF re-allocating the meanings of the frames composing it by strengthening or reforming them and create, willing or not, a semantic and emotional shuffle between the starting material and the fruition context.

From what has been saying up to this point, GIFs seem to be a digital form of citation, since they rely, for their own creation, on a practise of “déprédation” and “appropriation”, using Antoine Compagnon’s terminology.[xiv] By appropriating of a stand-alone content, ripped out from its narrative and semantic linear flow and transformed in a GIF, users unveil all its communicative potentialities taking advantage of its overflow of meanings and exploiting it to vehicle and express their own messages. The signification and the effect of a GIF in a conversation, hence, depend not only on the specific value the user attributes to it, but also on the “receptacle of meanings” embedded in the content itself and that are presentificated by its repetition and its use. In this way, the familiar reaction GIFs – and in general all the frame GIFs[xv]–we see and use ubiquitously in our social media daily conversations are a new and perhaps more pop and mainstream form of the practise Guy Debord called détournement. According to Debord, the term détournement connotes the activity of “the integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu” [xvi] or, to say it in other way, the reuse of pre-existing artistic elements in a new ensemble, where the extracted fragment loses its own importance to be part of a new significant whole. Indeed, the GIF follows the same fundamental rule of the détournement, which is, as written by Debord and the Situationists in 1959, “the loss of importance of each detourned autonomous element — which may go so far as to completely lose its original sense — and at the same time the organization of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect”.[xvii] The connection between GIFs and détournements extends as much as we go in depth of the theory of this Situationist’s powerful tool. As written by Guy Debord and Gil J Wolman in 1956, there is a “minor” détournement, which is based on “an element which has no importance in itself […], a press clipping, a commonplace photograph”[xviii] or, in the case of some common GIFs, even a clip from a not so famous movie or TV show, a home movie, a private video or a real-life event captured by a phone can be used as source material. Then, there is the “deceptive” détournement, “based on an intrinsically significant element, which derives a different scope from the new context”,[xix] such as a well-known movie or a TV series that’s on everyone’s lips. 

Notwithstanding, in some respect GIFs seem to exceed the détournement. In fact, as we have seen in the example Leonardo DiCaprio’s toast, GIFs seem to negate the rule according to which, as stated by Debord and Wolman, “the main impact of a détournement is directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the original contexts of the elements”.[xx] The recollection of the original source was so important because, in Situationists’ intentions, the détournement was meant to lead to a reawakening of the consciousness asleep by the “society of the spectacle”, then with a programmatic political and ideological intent. On the contrary, GIFs have adopted the same operational aesthetics and modalities (decontextualization, appropriation, subversion of meanings, etc.), but users have included them in their communicative arsenal without any declared ideological intent or goal. Of course, using a GIF of Obama instead of one of Trump could endorse some political implications, but it does not depend on the GIF itself, on the decontextualized and risemantized original material, but on the specific use people make of that GIF. As Kate Miltner and Tim Highfield write, “while one person might select a GIF of Obama waving because they love him, another might select the same GIF because they (or the intended audience) intensely dislike him and want to add a layer of sarcasm or insult to the mix. In this way, the same exact text can be used to make oppositional meaning”.[xxi] On this perspective, the GIFs are able to express a perfectly adequate significance independently from the origin of the images, recognisable and relevant in the new context, because they are not (or however not only and principally) a subversive act and a political challenge. In this sense, Sally McKay reasonably associates GIFs to the cinematographic close-up because, adopting Mieke Bal’s words, it “immediately cancels out the whole that precedes it, leaving us […] alone with a relationship to the image that is pure affect”. [xxii] McKay underlines here the fact that once a frame is rooted out from its original locus and narrative continuity and transformed into a GIF, it is perfectly suited to function as a standalone communicative object performing some emotional and semantic function. Notwithstanding, “unlike close-ups cinema” MacKay continues, “animated GIFs function without a “whole” – there is no ongoing narrative for them to be juxtaposed against”.[xxiii] Speaking in terms of the emotional and semantic load, this “pure affect” expressed by GIFs, that’s to say their being unrestricted by any bond with the source content and context, constitute the essence of their communicative power and popularity nowadays. 

Despite these differences, however, détournements and GIFs share a common ontological basis, since it is clear that we are dealing with something more complex than an intertextual quotation. Indeed, in Debord‘s words, “leaving the imbeciles to their slavish reference to “citations”,[xxiv] we must contemplate a GIF as what Maria Rosaria Dagostino instead calls ‘cit-action’,[xxv] defining it as an active cross-reference for the construction of a new sense that applies independently from the origin of the source material. The operations constituting the backbone of GIF’s anatomy force user to be participative and active, to carry out “cit-actions” rather than “citations” even if the intent is to communicate an inner state, a feeling, a thought or an emotion in a talkative, funny and easily comprehensible way, in full compliance with the dictates of the participatory culture. Indeed, GIFs are so easily adopted by users in their messages with the community and their social media status’ updates precisely because GIFs are a sort of ready-made, something existing on its own of which users can exploit the polysemy by choosing one of their intrinsic emotional or semantic meanings accordingly to their purposes and necessities. As Marco Senaldi[xxvi] argues, ready-mades are everyday objects infused with artistic significance thanks to the simple choice of the artist. Deflecting this sentence, GIFs could be defined as everyday frames and images imbued with communicative and emotional significance thanks to the simple choice of the user. In fact, when the user inserts a GIF in a conversation, he bends the manifold emotional values that the ‘pure affect’ of the fragments may include to his particular purposes, showing the “spectacularization of the reference: no longer a simple objectified reference but an aesthetic opening”[xxvii] toward multiple different uses. Analogous to Duchamp’s Ready-Made, GIFs take advantage of replicability’s and (insolent) citation’s aesthetics – while not being citation themselves – and operate through the reuse of pre-existing material that is recontextualized in order to give it a new function and meaning. Because of the disconnection between the GIF and its original context, the ‘pure affect’ carried out by the decontextualized and looped fragments never consumes itself and it is always ready to be recycled and reinvested with new meanings in equally new contexts and situations. Hence, GIFs can be considered as emotional and semantic ready-mades, displaying what Carlo Martino calls “the infinite possibilities of the originals”: extrapolating a frame and appropriating it we extract also its meanings and emotions, which can be used, replicated and combined in infinite ways and contexts to express, within a community, a variety of states of mind and feelings. 

The particular and complex anatomy of apparently simple virtual objects such as GIFs help us to understand their power and increasing diffusion in everyday communication practise. The rise of a GIF Culture inside the broader Participative and Remix Culture testifies the capacity of these objects to possess incredible communicative affordances, whose true extensiveness and features are probably still to be discovered.

[i] Rubinstein, D. (2012), “GIF Today,” The Photographer’s Gallery: Born in 1987 Exhibition“. see also Olia Lialina, “Animated GIF as a medium”, (Accessed 26th October 2019).

[ii] McKay, S. (2009), “The Affect of Animated GIFs (Tom Moody, Petra Cortright, Lorna Mills)”, Art&Education, (Accessed 25th October 2019).

[iii] Cfr. Jenkins, H. (2006), Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press; Jenkins, Henry. (2006).  Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century.  Chicago, IL: MacArthur Foundation.

[iv] As stated by Eduardo Navas, “remix culture can be defined as the global activity consisting of the creative and efficient exchange of information made possible by digital technologies that is supported by the practice of cut/copy and paste.” Cfr. Navas, E. (2007), “Remix Defined”, remixtheory.net, (Accessed 26th October 2019).

[v] According to Anna Everett, digitextuality “is a neologism that at its most basic combines two familiar word images: the overdetermined signifier digital, which denotes most of computer-driven media’s technological processes and products, and Julia Kristeva’s term intertextuality.[…] With the two terms conjoined in this way, digitextuality suggests a more precise or utilitarian trope capable at once of describing and deconstruction a sense-making function for digital technology’s newer interactive protocols, aesthetic features, transmedia interfaces and end-user subject positions, in the context of traditional media antecedents”. Cfr. Everett, A. (2003), “Digitextuality and Click Theory: Theses on Convergence Media in the Digital Age” in Everett, Caldwell (eds.) New Media Theories and Practicies of Digitextuality, p. 1-2.

[vi] As stated by Tolins and Samermit, “the use of GIFs presents the reproduced action as the texter’s current embodied action, which would otherwise be prohibited by the written format” (p. 76). Cfr. Tolins, Jackson and Patrawat S., (2016). “GIFs as embodied enactments in text-mediated conversation”, Research on Language and Social Interaction, vo. 49, pp. 75–91.

[vii] Huber, L. (2015). “Remix Culture & The Reaction GIF”, Gnovis, a journal of communication, culture & technology, (Accessed 25th October 2019).

[viii] Henry Jenkins considers “play” as one of the most powerful skills people should acquire in participatory culture, describing it as “the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving”. Cfr. Jenkins, H. and K. Clinton, R. Purushotma, A. Robison, M. Weigel (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education For the 21st Century. Chicago: The MacArthur Foundation, p. 6.

[ix] Cfr. Dawkins, R. (1975). The selfish gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press. See also: Shifman, L. (2013). Memes in a Digital World: Reconciling with a Conceptual Troublemaker, J Comput‐Mediat Comm, vol. 18, pp. 362-377.

[x] Dagostino M. R. (2006). Cito dunque creoForme e strategie della comunicazione visiva, Roma: Meltemi, p. 11, (my translation).

[xi] Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham (NY): Duke University Press, p. 26.

[xii] Huber, L. cit.

[xiii] Cfr. Bolter, J. and R. A. Grusin (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

[xiv] Cfr. Compagnon, A. (1979). La Seconde main ou le Travail de la citation, Paris: Seuil.

[xv] With the term “frame GIF” I mean, in a broad and general sense, all those clips and fragments taken from audio-visual contents (usually mainstream and easily recognizable) and used, in most cases, as a sharing tool on the Internet aimed at permitting forms of information exchange in a light, petty and a little “camp” manner.

[xvi] Cfr. Voice “détournement” in “Definitions”, Internationale Situationniste #1 (June 1958), Situationist International Online, (accessed 25th October 2019)

[xvii] Debord, G. and G. J. Wolman, Internationale Situartionniste review n. 3, dated 1959.

[xviii] Debord, G. and G. J. Wolman, (1956). The User’s guide to détournement, orig. “Mode d’emploi du détournement” originally appeared in the Belgian surrealist journal Les Lèvres Nues #8 (May 1956). This translation is by Ken Knabb, The Situationist International Anthology,

[xix] Ibidem

[xx] Debord, G. and G.J. Wolman (1956). The User’s guide to détournement, cit.

[xxi] Miltner, K. and T. Highfield (2017). “Never Gonna GIF You Up: Analyzing the Cultural Significance of the Animated GIF”, Social Media + Society.

[xxii] Mckey, S. cit.

[xxiii] Bal, M. (2007). “Exhibition as Film”, in Sharon Macdonald and Paul Basu (eds.), Exhibition Experiments, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, p.81. 

[xxiv] Debord, G. and G. J. Wolman. (2006[1956]). edited by K. Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, Bureau of Public Secrets, p. 15.

[xxv] Dagostino, M. R., cit., p. 13.

[xxvi] Senaldi, M. (2003). Enjoy! Il godimento estetico, Milano: Meltemi.

[xxvii] Dagostino M. R., cit. p. 125, my translation.

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