In Defense Of GIFs
“We all have those moments, when you know what you want to say, but Kristen Wiig says it better.” –Giphy Keys
GIFs. Let’s talk about it. I recently read an article entitled “Satan Wanted An App But Instead He Created The GIF Keyboard,” a charming piece that compares GIFs to “caveman grunts” and suggests condemning the web-based animations to the circle of Hell of their choice. This is a pretty popular opinion that’s been circling around since the release of Giphy Keys, an iPhone keyboard that allows users to insert GIFs directly into text messages. The critics dismiss the use of GIFs as a subpar form of communication, one that’s leading copywriters down a dark path toward an apocalyptic rhetorical black hole without words or artfully crafted sentences. But in a 21st-century world where an emoji was the Oxford English Dictionaries Word Of The Year, where do GIFs fit in? Over all the noise, I’m hearing the same, tired argument: older is better.
Confession: I like GIFs. I take offense to the dismissal of them as unnecessary, mostly because I envy those who can communicate perfectly without them. They’re like a security blanket for the socially awkward—if you’re texting and you can’t think of something to say, send a GIF. In addition to allowing you to be vague (a necessary ingredient in modern relationships), GIFs add a boost of cultural proficiency to those self-conscious encounters. When you can’t find the right words, GIFs help you come off looking hip af (as hip as someone who uses the word “hip” can be) as well as hilariously sharp. There’s no way around it: GIFs are funny. They’re reliably funny. Take a meme, make it move, and add in a couple of our favorite TV or movie characters, and you have the common GIF, a perfectly packaged little bite of wit that will help you out of awkward silences. To those of us who spend our days trying to write clever taglines, pointed blog posts, and hilarious tweets, GIFs are a godsend. Sometimes, it’s hard to be funny. If you’re targeting an audience with a younger demographic, it’s all but impossible to speak with the correct vernacular (and let’s face it: we don’t want our brands dropping the terms bae, squad, or fleek). GIFs solve that problem. They’re a language everyone can speak: they’re accessible.
I don’t mean to say that GIFs are social crutches, because without good copy and brand know-how, GIFs sink like any bad social. However, I can’t help but compare the demonizing of GIFs to the criticism of slang in general, which takes root with many as a way for the upper class to invalidate the language of the masses. Calling GIF users drooling monosyllabic skin bags? Well, it’s nothing new. When the Beats first started publishing, they received shockingly similar criticism. New and unfamiliar ways of communicating surface with every generation, and every generation rejects the unknown. Are GIFs literary? Probably not. But communication in its essence is controlled by culture, meaning it’s constantly shifting. Calling out any specific type of language for being subpar brings us back to the issue of prioritizing one culture above others. And GIFs are a new form of language: they’re being used to replace words as well as supplement them. That’s okay, because language evolves, and those who try to stop it usually end up stuffy, outdated, and irrelevant.