Reaction gifs tap into a moment or a feeling that words cannot quite capture. For example, my favourite gif is a moment from the TV show Community, where one character walks into a room carrying pizzas only to stop and stare in horror at the chaos that the room has become in his absence. The gif can represent horror, an escalation of a situation, or what it feels like to stumble, unaware, into disaster. It took 27 words to describe that gif, where it would have taken only 3 seconds to look at, and understand the meaning of it. That is the power of gifs, and part of why they are so ubiquitous on the Internet.
Gifs were initially used out of technological necessity, as a ‘mid-point’ between pictures and videos. Gifs used less data, and took less time to load (a 2 minute video would take 40 minutes to load), so were a staple of early Internet sites. Initially purely functional, gifs soon became the vessel for the weird Internet humour we know them for today. The first gif to go viral was the ‘dancing baby’ gif, which was easy to spread, and later gifs like ‘peanut butter jelly time dancing banana’ proved the versatility and viralability (if that’s a word?) of the simple gif.
However, these gifs were not really reaction gifs, and are closer to the style of flash animation videos popular in early 00s Internet culture instead. The first reaction gifs were used on forums, for shorthand, and as way to break up text heavy conversations. Popularity in reaction gifs spread, and then later they were fully integrated into and supported on Tumblr. This is where, in my opinion, we could see the full potential of the reaction gif.
On Tumblr, reaction gifs were (and still are) used to show agreements with a point – the ubiquitous ‘THIS’ style gif, with a character pointing up to the previous post. They could be used to show love or affection for another blogger or even a fictional character. They could be used to show displeasure or anger. The possibilities were endless. Tumblr bloggers would have folders full of reaction gifs they’d saved and would share all across the microblogging platform. My reaction gif folder from 2012 has over 100 gifs, with everything from lowqualityelsadrink.gif to hatersgonnahatecat.gif. This collection provides an insight into my interests, my sense of humour, and how I communicated with people in 2012. God it’s embarrassing.
Gifs capture a moment of time, remove it from its original context, and loop that moment infinitely. By being able to take that moment of time and insert it into a completely different context, it could add new meaning to the original clip. Every new sharing of the reaction gif, every new way it was used to react to something added new meaning and nuance to the gif. The sharing and constant reuse was integral to a good gif, which would be easy to read, adaptable, and easily shared.
While Tumblr pioneered the reaction gif, its usage eventually spread beyond the website. Buzzfeed (who often bring Internet quirks to a mainstream audience) created what I’m calling the ‘gifsticle’: the gif list article. These articles, like “19 Things You Didn’t Know About Pregnancy That Will Really Surprise You”, will have a numbered list –in this case a list of things you don’t know about pregnancy that will really surprise you – with a reaction gif after every single point. This acts to signpost what the audience’s reaction should be to the strange fact, as well as help create a informal, casual tone to the article. This, in recent years, has helped push reaction gifs into the “mainstream” internet, and contributed to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter create a “gif” button, so its easier to share gifs. Gone are the barbaric days of having to save and repost a gif, now they are all on the site and ready to use. My reaction gif folder is obsolete.
Reaction gifs are more popular than ever. They are short and snappy; easy to share and easy to use; and able to constantly evolve and adapt beyond their initial use. Reaction gifs have a constant playfulness to them, and are never to be taken seriously. However, questions of ownership can quickly come into question over these gifs. Someone has to make them, but they are so quickly shared it can be hard to identify their creator. Gifs don’t come from nowhere, and many gif artists’ work gets widely shared without any recognition.
Furthermore, does giffing a clip from a TV show infringe on copyright? In recent years, TV studios will create their own gifs from their own shows in the hope that it’ll go viral and become a cheap and easy advert for their product. But what does this mean for independent creators?
Giphy, the new gif curator on Facebook and Twitter, has a large collection of low-quality reaction gifs, but with no clue as to where these gifs came from or how they got chosen to be part of this vast collection. As gif production becomes the domain of media companies and huge private entities, is it the end of the independent reaction gif creator and the start of a new phase of the reaction gif?
Reaction gifs have always been a large part of internet communication, and as we head into an uncertain future, we must examine how we can preserve what made the reaction gif so prolific.