Do you speak gif?

Animated by @gifadog
We recognise in the animated gif something akin to our inner world. We think ‘in gif’ and this is why in spite of all the criticism of the medium it refuses to die. Some people at MIT are now studying it as a separate language. We may soon be asking, do you speak gif? Mariana Funes

I wrote the words above a few months ago when speculating about the animated gif as a window to open learning and possibly enlightenment. My passion for the medium continues to grow as does my stash of resources for that definitive book on the animated gif I will write one day.

Meantime at York college Michael and Ryan are teaching digital storytelling where the first assignment is an animated gif. Go guys go! I love that.

As a special event for the students Michael Branson Smith and Ryan Seslow organised a hangout with the awesome people behind giphy.com, Jess Gilliam and Alex Chung. The event was to talk about a digital sticker contest giphy.com are organising and which York College students may be contributing to. I was interested in the high nerd ideas behind the contest, giphy.com and visual writing. It turns out that what was a new insight to me months ago when I asked ‘Do you speak gif?’ is something that has been studied by media scholars for a long time. The wonders of being a networked scholar, no longer tied to my own discipline and having infinite learning possiblities open to me. I digress. The rest of this article sums up the converation in the hangout from the perpective of these big ideas rather than the detail of the contest.

Edited podcast of conversation
Animated Gif by @gifadog

We will be over books soon. Or will we?

In order to focus my attention and improve the sound quality of the hangout, I decided to edit it into a 15 minute podcast. Several hours later and tired of the new Garageband ‘features’ I uploaded a file to SoundCloud. Warning: sound quality is still poor.

After an introduction to CT101, the digital storytelling course at York College, Michael asks about the history of Giphy. We learn that it was a side project started after a coffee shop chat about ‘why is it so hard to find animated gifs on the Internet?’ What was needed was a good gif search engine. Alex wrote ‘this thing on the side’ with 30 thousand gifs and shared it with friends initially. It grew fast and in a few days they had many offers of funding. Two years later 19 million people visit the site to find just the right gif for the right occasion and their plans are even more ambitious than this going forward. In discussing the digital sticker and the contest a conversation about visual writing evolves.

Digital Animated sticker from Giphy.com

So what is a digital sticker? At one level it is just ‘an animated gif with a transparent background’ A distinguishing feature, however, is that it has an emotional content. Line, their partner in the contest, use it ‘in their messaging app in the same way we use gifs on the internet.’ They can be static or animated.

One could say that there is a continuum of visual language to express emotion: the text emoticon, the emoji, stickers and the animated gif. The continuum is one that has words to describe emotion at one end and moving images representing it at the other. Alex sees stickers as ‘the missing link’.
I said earlier that Giphy’s plans are pretty ambitious going forward.

Animated gif by @gifadog

What if, they speculate, it were possible to ‘catalogue an entire range of human emotion in visual language?’ There is a desire to create the world largest library of human reactions. If we could do that, says Alex, it would say something really cool about the world we live in. The conversation, inevitably, turns to tagging and how it limits the catologuing process due to how resource intensive it is. At Giphy, even after an intensive automated process, human editors have spent 2 years manually tagging its content. Tagging may be a bottleneck to the larger dream of the ‘world’s largest library of human reactions’.

In our mediated world we are becoming more and more reliant on text for interaction. Some might say ‘we are losing the ability to include emotions’ in our interactions, suggests Michael, hence we need emoticons and emojis. If there were a repository of visual writing to express emotion, it could bring back greater complexity in how we express emotion in communication.

It is this limitations of the written word that is an underlying driver for Giphy’s mission. Alex’s Masters thesis was based on Mitchell Stephens ‘The rise of the image, the fall of the word’. He laughs as he tells us that he is now sketchy on the details as he does not read anymore.

The book was written in 1998 and speaks to the limitation of language and to the growth of this visual writing through film. Stephens argued that nobody has yet taken full advantage of the language of video because it is still in its infancy. He says that all change in communication meets with initial resistance and is later adopted within a culture. His theories are nowadays embedded in our web culture.

Using these ideas as a starting point, Alex believes that at some point written language will stop being able to express the complexity of human emotion. ‘there are certain scenes in film that take too long to describe in words’ so a gif speaks a thousand words. He goes on to say ‘film is new and we are only now learning or adapting to its potential’. Alex believes that emotional expression in the near future on the web (some might say that future is already here) will be primarily through gifs, digital stickers an/or an evolution of a new medium that assimilates these. I find it interesting to reflect on what ‘takes too long to describes in words’ means — Too long according to whom? Too long for lazy instant gratification humans? Too long for an ‘alone together’ not that distant future?

Animated gif by @Gifadog

Michael wonders if there may be a different type of intelligence evolving in ‘the ability to choose the right reaction gif to express an emotion’ Is this perhaps a different type of intelligence than what is needed to explore emotion in words?

Alex explains that if you track the length of movie scenes over time, you find that it has decreased significantly. He attributes this to an increased ability on our part to absorb meaning in visual language more readily. The visual unit for a ‘word’, the scene cut, has decreased over time from 15 seconds, to 5 to 1 more recently. The idea that we are evolving in our ability to use this new language that the web affords ties in with the idea that we have been using words for much longer than gifs and hence ‘we have a long way to go’.

‘our ability to comprehend that much visual language grows every year, you can see that this is changing exponentially. It will be interesting to see what happens. We will probably be over books very soon’. Alex jokes ‘we are still cave painting in this medium!’

Jess stops him and disagrees as she tells us that she loves books so her future is not one devoid of them. She stresses that what is interesting about this digital sticker contest is that people have a chance to create something that expresses a wide range of emotions, and importantly the contest gives everyone else the chance to say what they think — which sticker expresses a given emotion best. I am reminded of prototype theory in psychology, what is the prototypical representative of ‘chair’? Here we are asking, what is the prototypical representative of ‘angry’?

‘A key to success for an image is that you think about something that, if you send it to a friend, it will make them emotional in that moment. It could be something simple, every day or something crazy. It captures a moment.’

Ryan concludes the conversation exploring the difference between our online persona and our physical self. He speaks of students who may not be very expressive face to face yet can express themselves emotionally on their Tumblr or their blog. Ryan sees the web as offering a chance for people to express themselves in ways that may not be accessible to them face to face through the virtual realm. Ryan explains that some students, for example, send emails with a gif signature which changes every time, so it is clear the student is aware they are crafting meaning in that moment. Ryan seems to speak to the idea that if we think of integrating the physical with the virtual we have a greater range of expression available to us. This contrasts with the idea which introduced this article that ‘data is the new flesh’ which implies that we are replacing the physical with the virtual. Alex also seems to imply a ‘replace thesis’ — we will be over books. Jess, on the other hand, seems to see it more like Ryan as a bigger canvas that includes text and visual writing.

The best example I know of this evolution is this hilarious account of the writing process actually ‘written in gif’. There is so much to understand about this humble file format I did not know existed a year ago. I keep trying to make sense of its appeal to myself and so many others — transparent background or not!

Animated by @gifadog
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