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GIF It Good: Reaction GIFs (Part Five - The Final Installment)

[Be sure to check out part one, two, three, and four in this series!]

Here we are, friends! The final leg of the race. Although, if this really was a race I’d be coming in dead last considering that I’ve been slow as molasses in finishing this series. Ah well. It's the effort that counts.

Reaction GIFs. The holy grail of GIF-ing.

Even the super stereotyped Baby Boomer with their dur hur technophobia has at least some level of fondness for this form. After all, it’s how GIFs initially made sense to us. We can trace a broad but pretty steady trajectory through the various ways we’ve come to express ourselves online:

Emoticons - Look, you can type out funny faces now! (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Emojis - Feeling lazy? We made the faces for you! 😡😛😘

Reaction Images - Hey, hey why not use a real face (or, you know, an animated one) with the added bonus of visually quoting your favorite movie/TV show/YouTube vid? Now you can show people your reaction and remind them of a fantastic scene, thus using that scene as additional context for this particular form of self expression! Isn’t language wild?

GIFs - It’s achieving the same thing as the reaction image except now they move!!

Well, almost the same thing. Yes, we absolutely have what we might think of as the traditional reaction GIF, wherein someone posts one thing and you respond solely (or at least primarily) in GIF-form, reducing your emotions to whatever it is you’ve chosen to upload. For example:

Now here’s the thing, I know absolutely nothing about Bendy and the Ink Machine, a survival horror game developed by Kindly Beast. However, I do know that GIF from The Office rather well. It’s a common GIF used to express overwhelming excitement about something, particularly something that has taken a long time to come about (hence the emphasis on “it’s happening!”) which helps to characterize the poster’s note here. That is, “Oh lord here we go” could be an expression of true apprehension or fake trepidation overlaying excitement. The use of this GIF pretty firmly lands the post in positive territory. I’m working under the assumption that the user is genuinely looking forward to Chapter Five of the game, something I wouldn’t be able to assume from their writing alone. Reaction GIFs provide insight into the poster's reaction to a particular bit of info or event (duh), but the longer a reaction GIF is used the more specific a connotation it develops, building a context over years that then characterizes that reaction in a particular manner. Anyone who has spent any significant time online will start to recognize when and where to use these:

You don't use Michael Jackson eating popcorn to express your love of a new film that just came out----that's for watching idiotic drama go down while you're safe on the sidelines. Kermit flailing isn't appropriate for your pre-exam nerves----our favorite frog is for expressing an excitement so massive it can't be contained within your puny, mortal body. GIFs are a language and as such they develop specific rules, rules that often go unnoticed by those who are "native" speakers. In the same way that we understand, culturally speaking, that there's a difference between a "butt dial" and a "booty call," we understand that there's an ocean of difference between Steve Buscemi's fellow kids GIF and Will Smith's sunflower screenshot.

Obviously, GIFs are integral to online communication nowadays, as well as texting and (if you're a lame teacher like me) the occasional PowerPoint. The introduction of movement is useful for a number of obvious reasons, providing us with more expression, body language, and timing to help get our point across. Dump all that useful info into a couple of repeated seconds----allowing everyone to easily re-watch and re-consider the moment until they feel up to speed----and you've got yourself a goldmine for easy interaction. In fact, GIFs are so ubiquitous that even a 23 second vid that you have to click on (something no one wants to do while mindlessly scrolling) needs to be reduced to GIF form by a "real friend." We know what we want, thanks.

Want to know something funny though? Traditional reaction GIFs are becoming few and far between, at least around tumblr. I didn’t even notice it until I started collecting posts for this essay, so this might still be a thing around Facebook and the like (I don’t intend to browse there long enough to find out), but within this particular community we’ve started to lightly branch out with the reaction GIF’s use. Now we’re seeing more things like this:

The purpose here isn’t to respond to something outside of the GIF, but rather to use the GIF as an expression of the thing. AKA, this reaction GIF isn't simply responding to an event----your reaction to drama, good news, that season finale----but is instead completing the second half of a thought, the first of which was provided by the text post and is almost nonsensical without the GIF's presence. It’s subtle, but it’s a rather different experience to write a post saying, “when it’s 3 am and you’re alone with your thoughts” and then someone else introduces a John Mulaney GIF to specify exactly what kind of thoughts those might be. That's normally how reaction GIFs function on a website catering to tiered conversations: you post a thing and someone else adds their reaction. Reaction GIFs are, more often than not, rather specific interpretations of what OP meant and you'll find numerous options depending on which reblogs and threads you follow. But here that specificity comes directly from OP themselves and it’s clear that rather than just functioning as a reaction, the GIF is now the primary focus of the post. The text is incomplete without the GIF attached to it, unlike the Bendy and the Ink Machine tweet above which could indeed stand on its own even without the poster's reaction GIF accompanying it. Mulaney’s skits are already relatable, but now we’ve taken that relatable experience—asking do my friends hate me or do I just need to sleep—and making it even more relatable by acknowledging that these thoughts normally occur late at night when you have the tendency to overthink things. In a sort of reversal, the event is responding to the GIF rather than the GIF responding to the event.

Similarly, we’re seeing people taking traditional reaction GIFs and re-purposing them for fake arguments and conversations. You could wait until you came across a post talking about how hunky and badass Thor is in order to use this GIF as a counter… or you could just set up that very specific scenario for yourself.

Here OP is speaking both for themselves and for an imaginary Marvel. The first half of the setup is presented as a fact about the company, implied that this is indeed objectively how they present Thor as a character, even though—were we to actually tackle this argument—I think there’s a great deal to undermine the thesis. But of course, that’s not the point of the post. We’re not actually interested in whether Marvel as a specific storyteller presents Thor as “six feet of RAW MUSCLE and his hobbies include SMASHING things with a HUGE, MAGIC HAMMER.” This is more a commentary on hyper-masculine characters in general, the assumptions made about characters who look like Thor and the ways that fans re-appropriate them as kind, loving, gentle individuals. Who better to embody this trend than Wonder Woman, an equally buff, badass character who nevertheless embodies the characteristics we’re trying to tie to others. She fights for the little guy. Doesn’t take herself too seriously. Wonder Woman will beat a Nazi's head in one moment and gush about ice cream the next—or in this case, a baby. The next commenter in the thread sums it up well with “10/10 gif usage.”

Like most reaction GIFs, the combo is also meant to be funny. This setup works because it's reminiscent of another favorite: the Me, An Intellectual meme. Initially, the joke worked to re-phrase a common idea or saying in a manner that technically follows some sort of linguistic rule, but in a way that very deliberately doesn't work.


Later, the meme developed to include (as memes usually do) some form of social commentary. The "Intellectual" changed from "silly fool who uses the thesaurus too much" to "actual intellectual with a point to make, even if the point isn't taking itself too seriously."

Thus, the GIF of Wonder Woman works because of these parallels and the implication of humor attached to them. Whether intentional or not, we recognize this structure. We could easily reframe the above post as

You: Thor is the GOD of motherFUCKING THUNDER?????? He’s six feet of RAW MUSCLE and his hobbies include SMASHING things with a HUGE, MAGIC HAMMER and being a generally SEXY BEAST

Me, an intellectual:

and achieve the same results. Almost, anyway. The overblown description (Marvel doth protest too much?) compared to a counter hilariously short (OP only needs two words to make their case) is in and of itself entertaining, especially since it's the opposite of the trend we usually see in the Me, an Intellectual meme. Rather than taking simple concepts and making them stupidly complicated, we’re taking a supposedly complicated characterization and making it simple. Thor is a baby. Enough said.

In fact, far from just reacting, most reaction GIFs nowadays do try and change our perspective on a topic, usually for those humorous purposes. Take, for example, this explanation of a calcium carbonate molecule paired with a Mario GIF.

What was originally an informative post about sciency things that I will never have any hope of understanding (and that's banking on this info being true from the get-go. This is a reddit link we're talking about) quickly becomes a joke as we see Mario running so quickly up a flight of stairs that he glitches and disappears. The function of the post has now changed thanks to this addition. The information no longer stands on its own, but rather acts as a setup for this punchline. The takeaway is no longer "Oh cool what a neat sciency thing I should totally fact-check later." It has become much more of a "lol WTF, Mario" response----which is a rather different kind of entertainment. The addition becomes the takeaway.

Blogging is, by its very nature, interactive. If we truly wanted to just write and create things for our own sense of accomplishment we’d keep our work in private journals, or hidden away in the folders of our laptops. Whether sharing your work feels like an integral part of the process or just icing on an already satisfying cake, by posting it for hundreds of followers (I’m being generous in our popularity here) there is the expectation that people will interact with it. Normally when we think about “Internet” and “interaction” in the same sentence we conjure up images of some less than enjoyable commentary—usually on anon—but it’s not all doom and gloom. Much of the fun of blogging comes from putting something out there and watching how others choose to engage with it, often in thoroughly unexpected ways. Often in transformative ways. It’s not merely interaction in the form of “Good job!” and “I liked this!” that we’re looking for. Again, if it were we could just as easily show the work to our moms and call it a day. (Aren’t they contractually obligated to love everything we produce? Pretty sure that’s a mom thing.) Regardless, the allure of social media, particularly sites with such a fandom focus like tumblr, is your ability to share ideas with the knowledge that your viewership is going to re-imagine, re-create, add onto, disassemble, and respond to your contribution in thoroughly fascinating ways. As we've been discussing, reaction GIFs are one primary form of this sort of interaction. With their addition we expect the original post to somehow change. Interestingly though, sometimes we move in the opposite direction and include GIFs as a means of pseudo-repetition:




I’ve found in recent years that there’s been a growing trend on tumblr to essentially re-create a post in GIF form. It presents a fun challenge, an acknowledgement that this situation is already absurdly specific, so do you have the knowledge and patience to find a GIF that somehow encapsulates such a distinct scenario? Of course, it’s more a matter of luck than skill. People aren’t looking at text posts like these—pieces that already function as a completed post all its own—waiting with bated breath for someone to add a GIF. Rather, the GIF is just more of that icing on the cake. You happen to think of one that manages to perfectly mimic this ridiculous situation, such as Chris Pratt actually acting like he’s an alien wearing a human down the runway? Add it! There, you just provided another layer of enjoyment, one that both re-creates the joke in a new format and produces a reaction of, “Holy shit you found this very specific thing and that makes me happy.” Or, “Holy shit that very specific thing exists outside of our shitposting.” Or even, “Holy shit this well-known celebrity is just as weird as we are isn’t humanity great?” Whenever I see setups like these all my brain can think of is, “Same hat!!”

I suspect that this particular trend may have started due to Supernatural’s influence (isn’t everything Supernatural’s fault?) Known as the fandom with a GIF for everything, they popularized the idea that, yes, no matter how strange or nonsensical your idea is, there exists a Supernatural GIF out there that can can perfectly sum it up. Though it’s a fun concept and with a total of fifteen seasons there’s obviously a lot of content to choose from, sometimes Supernatural doesn’t—gasp!—have an appropriate GIF. So we expanded the game to be more inclusive, adopting the broader idea that there’s simply a GIF for everything, perhaps evolving out of the ever popular marketing scheme, “There’s an app for that.”

But that’s all just speculation.

In fact, GIFs have become so standard that their existence is segueing into the unremarkable. Reaction GIFs in particular are now incredibly commonplace, an expected part of the online experience. If you want to make an impact then you have two main directions you can head in: you either produce a GIF of rare quality—like those we explored in Part Four, playing with high def material or optical illusions—or you head backwards and forsake GIFs completely.

Take Pikachu, for example.

The surprised Pikachu meme is a favorite of mine. Not just because the template has resulted in some pretty hilarious sketches, or the fact that it’s Pikachu (though that’s a big consideration), but because it’s one of the more well known examples of bloggers moving away from reaction GIFs when they deem it appropriate. Speaking bluntly, we already have a reaction GIF doing the work of our dear Pikachu. It’s the blinking white guy.

Fundamentally we have the same basic emotion here: profound and vaguely indignant shock. In theory every shocked Pikachu meme out there could be replaced with this GIF and ta-da! Excellent post without the need to do any additional work. AKA, coming up with an entirely new meme when an older one will suffice. So what gives? Well, from an origin perspective there is actually a lot going on here. Like the fact that popularity tends to repeat itself. Though I doubt Popokko had any conscious awareness of mimicking an already viral form when they chose that Pikachu image for their original post, there’s a reason that this particular expression resonated. Pikachu is cuter—always a plus when considering what might have an impact—and is the star of a still booming franchise. He’s also removed from any pesky sociological implications like, for example, how the context might change if we attached a blinking white man to a scenario about racism. Pikachu is just a pokemon and as such has a bit more leeway when it comes to memeing without repercussions. Unlike, say, the Change My Mind dude.

So why Pikachu got popular is obvious on some admittedly surface levels. But why a still image? Why not a GIF? From a practical perspective we might assume that Popokko didn’t have the skill or inclination to reduce that scene to GIF form. God knows if I wanted to make a quick tumblr post I wouldn’t bother with the act of downloading an episode, cutting it, and then converting it into GIF form. Just take a screenshot and be done with it. But what interests me most is how 1. Pikachu as a still image remains as popular as our blinking man—we don’t actually need the latest technology to stay interested in these posts, despite what some might say about our supposed obsession with the latest gadgets—and 2. That no one felt the need to add a GIF to the mix once the meme had hit viral status, even when given the chance to. What’s better than one meme?

Two memes! (Insert Dr. Seuss illustration here.) Slamming Pikachu together with the Expanding Brain meme was the perfect opportunity to introduce a more traditional reaction GIF, escalating into movement, but every version I’ve come across opted to increase the quality instead, or draw from other sources like the upcoming film. Sometimes the most fascinating GIF use is when we don't use them at all.

And I mean, on the whole we do recognize how awesome reaction GIFs are, yes? The versatility and the sheer number of options available to us now? Communication with other members of the human species is hard and I for one am a fan of any tool that helps me muddle through that. Reaction GIFs are just one tool among many in our digital landscape, but they're easily one of the most prevalent and----Pikachu aside----I'd wager the most enduring.

All hail the reaction GIF.


Image Credit

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