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Tuesday, July 12 • 14:46 - 16:15
Interrogating the reaction GIF: making meaning by repurposing repetition

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Location: PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - 305, 
Goldsmiths, University of London, Building 2
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  • Tim Highfield, Queensland University of Technology, Australia 
  • Kate M. Miltner, University of Southern California, United States


The GIF (an acronym for “Graphics Interchange Format”), was created in 1987 as a color image file format. The animated GIF was once considered emblematic of the early Web’s amateurish design aesthetics (Eppink, 2014). However, thanks to the format’s capacity to encode and compress video formats into small file sizes, the GIF has experienced a resurgence of late and become nearly ubiquitous on the social web. 

Contemporary usage of the GIF was pioneered by communities on Tumblr, 4chan, and reddit, who initially used it to make short video clips easier to share and embed. However, the phenomenon of GIF creation and usage quickly developed into a cultural practice with a specific rhetorical style (Thompson, 2013). The rich affective capabilities and unique affordances of the GIF contributed to its emergence as a go-to tool for performing identity, humor, expertise, and community in online environments (Bruckert, Davison, & Rugnetta, 2014; Shifman, 2014). 

The GIF is a polysemic format critical to contemporary online communication: it allows users to construct multiple levels of meaning, offering context-based semiotic flexibility and emphasis through repetition. Far more than just a file format, GIFs are a social and cultural force in the social media ecosystem. 


This work-in-progress examines how the affordances of GIFs are creatively exploited in online contexts. Specifically, this paper examines the use of/engagement with ‘reaction GIFs’, short snippets of larger media texts that are deployed as affective “responses” to other content or events. Reaction GIFs are highly performative (Ash, 2015), and this analysis explores how they offer novel ways of making meanings through intertextuality, humour and repetition. 


The initial case examines the use of David Bowie reaction GIFs on Tumblr. The Tumblr Bowie fandom is large and active, creating (and circulating) a rich collection of GIFs from his music and film appearances. GIFs were retrieved using the Tumblr search keywords ‘bowie’ and ‘david bowie’. The GIFs in the corpus (N = 60) were analysed twice: independently (devoid of context) and then within context. Visual, semiotic, and discourse analysis were used in combination. 


This study indicates two specific, and often interrelated, uses of reaction GIFs: performance of a specific type of stylized affect, and performance of cultural knowledge. Two particular affordances of the reaction GIF make it especially effective for these purposes: the decontextualization of the GIF from its master narrative and the endless loop-repetition of the GIFs. The combination of these two affordances subverts the semiotics of the GIF, robbing it of any sort of stable meaning while simultaneously complicating and expanding the GIF’s possibilities for meaning-making. Although the image of David Bowie was a constant among the reaction GIFs, their usage varied widely, ranging from fan activity to snarky commentary on topics unrelated to the GIF’s master text. This malleability underlines the importance and versatility of the GIF for everyday communication, as loops transcend context, both mixing and extending meanings through repetition. 

Future Work:

This work-in-progress into repetition in visual social media is part of a larger research project into ‘Visual Cultures of Social Media’. 


Ash, J. (2015). Sensation, networks, and the GIF: Toward an allotropic account of affect. In K. Hillis, S. Paasonen, & M. Petit (Eds.), Networked Affect (pp. 119–133). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 
Bruckert, S. Davison, P. and Rugnetta, M. (2014). MemeFactory Book, Beta Version. 
Eppink, J. (2014). A brief history of the gif (so far). Journal of Visual Culture, 13(3), 298–306. 
Shifman, L. (2014). Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 
Thompson, C. (2013, January 3). The animated GIF: still looping after all these years. Wired. http://www.wired.com/2013/01/best-animated-¬gifs/ 

Tuesday July 12, 2016 14:46 - 16:15 UTC
PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - 305 Goldsmiths University, Building 2