An adorable black kitten is sitting on a bookshelf, eyes fixed on an insect. It sits, paws perfectly aligned. Then, out of nowhere, it pounces — leaping off the shelf and into the air, wild and frantic.
An adorable tuxedo kitten is sitting on a bookshelf, eyes fixed on a housefly inches from its face. Behind it sits what appears to be the entire collection of Little House on the Prairie. You left those books at your parents’ house when you moved to college. It sits, paws perfectly aligned and head cocked. Expectedly, it pounces — leaping off the shelf wild and frantic and hilarious as it experiences the terror of free fall.
An adorable tuxedo kitten is sitting on a bookshelf, eyes fixed on a housefly. It has a tuft of white at the end of its tail and looks just like your friend Rebecca’s cat that she had when you were children. The blinds in the corner are bent and broken, something any kitten owner can relate to. It sits, paws perfectly aligned and head cocked. Inevitably, it clumsily pounces.
You send the gif to Rebecca: “Lol looks just like Leo, remember?!”
If every picture tells a story, a gif tells a story as a series, each version a slight variation on the previous one. With every loop, a viewer can take in more information, as inert details come to life and new elements are noticed, while the emotions triggered can be experienced repeatedly. The majesty of a rubber-band ball regaining its dignity after being crushed under a hydraulic press, or the shock of a car crash caught on a dashboard camera, can be felt again and again.
Once a sign of internet savvy, sharing a gif now has been streamlined and democratized by the rise of searchable databases like Giphy and by the integration of gifs into phone apps. Finding just the right clumsy puppy or celebrity eye-roll is as easy as finding the right word in the moment, making communicating through gifs commonplace. As often happens with new modes of communication as they become mainstream, gifs have been dismissed as stunted and insincere; they have been saddled with the same stereotypes that have been applied to those presumed to use them most: lazy millennials who want everything prepackaged for their short attention spans. Maybe if we turned Jane Austen’s works into gifs, kids would actually want to read them!
But gifs are less an impoverished form of digital shorthand than a new iteration of one of storytelling’s oldest and richest traditions. The qualities that define gifs were also fundamental to oral traditions, to how the stories and epics that gave shape and substance to the everyday life of oral societies were transmitted.
Walter Ong, a 20th-century philosopher who wrote extensively about oral culture, claimed that “sound has a special relationship to time unlike that of the other fields that register in human sensation. Sound exists only when it is going out of existence.” This ephemerality, in his view, gives speech a sort of magical quality, a momentousness. In oral societies, the spoken word has unique transformative power. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski claimed that, unlike literate peoples, oral societies used language as a “mode of action and not an instrument of reflection.” As Ong noted, in ancient Hebrew dabar means word, but it also connotes “event” or “action,” especially regarding the word of God.
The qualities that define gifs were fundamental to oral traditions, to the epics that gave shape and substance to everyday life
Because the stories, theories, and pedagogies of oral societies exist only in people’s minds, they are stabilized and canonized far differently than in literate societies. Memory is necessary for knowledge preservation, and mnemonic skills like repetition, metrical speech, and rhyme become key to knowledge transmission. Expression relies on formulas and epithets to guide memory: not the “princess” but the “beautiful princess”; not the “oak” but the “sturdy oak.” These mnemonics are not only practical, but an integral part of making performance pleasurable and engaging.
As classicist Eric Havelock has described in Preface to Plato (1963), poet-performers in ancient Greece relied on such devices to remember and transmit long, winding tales like The Iliad, complementing them with foot stamping, swaying, and music to make them richly communicative events. This suite of mnemonic devices and formalized bodily movements stabilized epics as rhythmic, visceral performance, while limiting the ways one telling might vary from another. These were the original technologies for outsourcing memory.
Gifs rely on similar mnemonics and limitations. As the Greek poet used repetition so the audience could follow along, the gif shows the same information over and over again to allow for maximum retention. Just as the poet maintained a palette of meticulous bodily movements and rhythmic phrases to hold an audience and communicate something memorable, we too might now load a gif keyboard with eye-roll gifs so that we may swiftly express a full range of “can’t even.” Gifs’ tiny file size can make them as succinct as proverbs, another key mode of didactic knowledge transmission in oral culture — easy to remember and repeat. Like proverbs, gifs unload their message quickly and can be applied in many different situations. And like epics, gifs often vary through slight moderations that recontextualize them while remaining faithful to older versions already lodged in memory or tradition. Hence the popularity of gif macros like Javert looking through a window, Robert Redford nodding, and Side Eye Chloe.
To be sure, a sad Javert gif and the mythopoetic tradition in Greece differ greatly. They cater to different cultural imperatives: The oral tradition serves memory in a culture where writing is uncommon or nonexistent, whereas gifs are often a conversational tactic that helps us navigate the experience of omnipresent text.
Ong argued, from an admittedly Western-centric perspective, that all cultures could fit on a spectrum spanning from oral to literate. This dichotomy seems to suggest that texts are linear, dead documents, and oral communication is alive. But the presence of textual elements need not be seen as the determining factor in what is “alive.” That depends more on how people in a particular culture engage with and interact through media. The societal implications of the written word have more to do with how text is distributed and blended with other media forms than with any intrinsic qualities of typographic communication. Furthermore, what gets defined as “text” has changed rapidly with the advent of electronic and digital media. Today, media scholars refer to everything from television shows and films to blog posts and selfies as “texts,” and the contemporary experience of media objects relative to the days of print media supports this redefinition.
The gif, along with a great deal of mediated communication, does not fit comfortably on Ong’s oral-literate continuum. If the written word exists in space and the spoken word in time, then gifs synthesize these, fleeting yet durable and ever redeployable. Gifs are both text and speech, and neither. Though concretized as digital files, they are not quite “dead” the way the written word can seem to be. Gifs not only move before the eye, echoing the poet’s gesticulations, but they also retain the magical quality of orality to change a conversation in real time, to perform an action rather than afford “introspection,” as Malinowski put it. All of this, despite the fact that the gif is a silent medium. It is oral but not aural.
In the earliest days of real-time digital text communication, it quickly became clear that letters and punctuation alone were not sufficient for the kinds of communication afforded by instantaneous, conversational connection. Emoticons, acronyms, and a variety of “text speak” tactics quickly emerged, and these have evolved into emojis, shruggies, stickers, and gifs. The right gif in the right context can be more effective at evoking emotions and acting on subjects than the gestures and intonations of face-to-face conversation. While a heated discussion about veganism in a café might end with “if you saw the videos, you’d understand,” a Facebook disagreement can include the visual element missing from spoken words. A friend on your couch may cheer you up with a condolence or a warm hug, but online they can send you a cute puppy carrying a stick that is far too large, or a happy bouncing Pusheen the Cat exuding hearts. Who’s to say which is more cheering?
Gifs’ tiny file size can make them as succinct as proverbs… despite the fact that the gif is a silent medium. It is oral but not aural
It may be that our world is becoming less a culture of literacy, in Ong’s sense, than one of textuality, characterized not by the mere presence of reading and print language but by the massive proliferation of media texts and their centrality to the human experience. Digital practices — message boards, comments sections, and SMS as well as gifs — are textual without producing the decontextualization, distanciation, and abstraction that Ong associated with the culture of literacy. “Writing fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings struggle with one another,” Ong writes. “It separates the knower from the known. By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle.” But much of what Ong attributed to oral culture also applies to textuality. Implemented in real-time networks, text can shrink distance across time and space rather than emphasize it as the written word did. It destroys abstraction through immediacy.
Gifs are less abstract than writing and thus also closer to the human lifeworld. They are more agonistic, as Ong thought oral culture was (see: gif battles or snarky reaction gifs). They are also experiential. Even when representing an abstract concept such as despair, gifs are firmly embedded in concrete human experience: the person breaking down into tears, throwing up their hands, eating ice cream directly from the quart container.
They also convey lessons less abstractly: The recipe gifs popularized by BuzzFeed and other content creators are categorically different from written instructions, or even instructional videos on television or online. They offer an abbreviated recipe more akin to an apprenticeship than a training manual and are inarguably more enjoyable to watch. You don’t have to peer over a list of directions wondering how finely to grate the cheese or what exactly a julienned carrot looks like. When the abbreviated gif recipe is paired with a list of ingredients, the oral-literate binary is altogether collapsed. Recipe gifs epitomize information transmission in an era that relies less on lessons passed down through generations or through traditional cookbooks, and more through online forums laden with reviews and comments. Such comment sections, like oral culture as Ong describes it, are additive rather than subordinative: Items are merely added on — “and this, and this” — rather than integrated hierarchically (“then this, but that”).
Since it lacks the efficient linearity of written language, oral communication is redundant and copious; things must be repeated again and again to ensure that speaker and hearer are keeping up with each other. This is not a flaw. Oral communication is often improved by this repetition, becoming mesmerizing. Havelock claimed that during poetic performances, both the poet and the audience would enter a sort of hypnotic state, completely immersed in the experience. For Plato, this hypnotic state gave the poet immense power. By enrapturing auditors with music, dance, and rhythmic wordplay, the poet wielded undue sway over the polis. Anyone who’s ever been hypnotized by a gif can probably understand.
Repetition draws the audience’s attention to the most substantive parts of the performance. Gifs work at a smaller scale, and through their ceaseless motion draw the eye, making an element of conversation stand apart from the surrounding text. Newer social media add-ons like bouncing stickers serve a similar purpose; they bring a liveliness that characterizes orality to the surrounding text’s uniformity and “deadness.” Though not ephemeral, their short length mimics the dynamics of fleeting oral communication. The gif captures the power of the spoken word’s ephemerality through brevity and repetition, replicating the aesthetic pleasure of orality through visual affordances that typographic language cannot accomplish on its own.
These visual, moving modes of communication in digital environments offer a vital response to Havelock’s complaint that people in the modern Western world have lost the pleasure and relish for life that he believed the ancient Greeks had: “They seem to enjoy themselves. They seem to take natural pleasure in fine shape and sound which we too sometimes recognize as beautiful but only after we have first pulled ourselves up by our own boot straps to an educated level of perception.” Gifs help us reclaim some of this everyday pleasure without the bootstrapping. Because they synthesize the oral and the literate cultures, they have the potential to resolve what Havelock saw as “the warfare between body and spirit” that arose with literacy’s abstractions. Speech was never a more “natural” form of human consciousness and communication that has been spoiled by inauthentic printed and digital texts. In fact, orality never disappeared, but rather is always continuing to emerge, in broader, more all encompassing forms.