Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Magic of Gifs

For reasons I can't explain (it's the internet, it defies explanation half the time), Tumblr, as well as much of the world, has been having a debate on the pronunciation of GIF for about... well, forever. I say it with a soft "g" but I sincerely don't care how you pronounce it. It's like tomato - depending on which side of the Atlantic you live on, it sounds different and it's really not the end of the world if you pronounce it differently - we know what you're talking about. (Besides, GIF is an acronym and it's not as if people are blatantly mispronouncing a word that does have a very specific way it should be pronounce, like the word "peril." I had a teacher in fifth grade that told our entire class that, by the pronunciation listed in the dictionary, it should be pronounced "pearl." Don't ask. I have no idea how she was interpreting the phonetic pronunciations given, but it's memories like these that make me marvel that I have any grasp on English at all.)

Regardless, GIFs have become the object of some fascination on the interwebs, mostly because... well, they're brilliant. If only you could print them off, then they would be like the magic moving photos that exist in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. What's more, they allow for an interesting play between language and images in a fun little linguistic interaction.
Here's a brief overview a certain part of semiotics and linguistics as it pertains to what I learned in cultural studies. Semiotics is the language of signs and focuses on the interaction between the sign (a thing that carries a meaning other than itself), the signifier (the thing that gives meaning - the words or the image), and the signified (the thing that is evoked in the mind by the signifier, the mental concept). The example that's always used is a tree - the word "tree" would be the signifier and what is signified is that plant-like thing that grows roots and has leaves. Of course, one signifier can represent a lot of different things. There are thousands of different kinds of trees and it depends who's looking at the signifier as to what they see it signifying. Roughly, a signifier is the denotation of something, while the signified is the connotation it has.

Of course, when I started looking at GIFs more closely, I was really intrigued by this. As GIFs are often used to convey emotions, especially those that are complicated and maybe can't be easily described, I started thinking about this a lot. GIFs manage to express things that words alone cannot, through quotes and facial expressions or certain gesture. People LOVE to express themselves through GIFs - if you're familiar with Tumblr and the way its users respond to posts, it's often through GIFs. Of course, this makes it difficult at times to interpret what a person is trying to convey while at other times, it's incredibly clear. I wish I'd gotten the chance to talk about GIFs as signifiers in my classes at school as they seem rather complicated - they often come from film or television shows, they can incorporate both words and images, they often take the place of someone expressing their own reaction. How we even begin to describe what they signify is sort of a mystery and it takes some training via exposure and reading these signs in the ways that the internet is accustomed to. Those who are literate in GIFs, so to speak, would understand that if I were to write something like, "How I feel when someone asks me if I've ever heard of Tom Hiddleston" and I posted this picture below it:
They would understand that I am aware of the actor, I have some degree of emotional complication with his existence, and that asking me about it may provoke interest, alarm, and other strong responses, as opposed to thinking that asking me about Mr. Hiddleston causes me to turn into Benedict Cumberbatch reacting to Josh Horowitz asking him about fanfiction during an interview. There is a certain way in which GIFs re-associate source material to different ideas in order to tie-in certain concepts or reactions. Which is rather beautiful and fascinating.

Of course, this gets really complicated, not just from a linguistic standpoint, but from an ownership standpoint. I wrote an essay last fall for a class that focused a great deal on authorship about how GIFs complicate things, especially when they are created by fans but come from material that might be copyrighted by a studio. It's a certain form of piracy, but if you've ever reposted something on Tumblr or used a specific GIF without crediting it, you'll know that GIF creators can be very possessive of their material. Reaction gifs are less this way, but there's still a certain privileged given to GIF creators and a certain regard for them. I don't know the first thing about making GIFs, so anyone who has that ability to use software in such a way has my utmost respect. It is sort of an artform in its own right, especially when certain manipulations are done and certain affects are added. But there is certain complication in posting these in the public sphere for free from materials that are copyrighted and profit-driven, and considering them artistic property of the GIF creator.

My friend Sarah posted some thoughts on this a while back (long, long ago as I've been meaning to write this post for many months) and I've simply copied and pasted her words because they were so wonderfully phrased:
I was thinking about this yesterday: you should write a post on GIFs and GIF possession. When does a GIF become "public" and when is it someone's "artistic property"? How do the rules of exchange on Tumblr affect this possession and distribution? In what ways does the distribution, possession, and creation of GIFs--especially for fandoms--reflect the inherent characteristics of the fandoms themselves? In what ways is it actually and often a strictly-governed means of idolization? How does creating elaborate GIFs (like with filters and colors and words and shit) of characters, moments, relationships, etc., remove those things from their original contexts and create something different that is PERCEIVED as the truth because of its overwhelming visual and emotional attractiveness? Like visual fan fiction? In this way, the relationship between fans and their -doms is seen in an interesting way: GIFs contribute to the cult of personality that surrounds fandoms and injects their content with doses of fantasy; that cult aspect actually reduces the original nature of [insert noun] in favor of an image that rewards the maker/viewer with even more emotional satisfaction. Does a fandom actively work to preserve that high? Are GIFs a function of that? You know me, just doing some thinking...

This would be a beautiful project on fandoms, let me tell you. The bit about visual fanfiction - so true. Shippers use gifs all the time to splice together scenes in order to build the possibility of their OTP. Often fanfiction stories stem from GIF scenes or inspire GIFs to be made about them. Fandoms are very much about GIFs and the possibilities they hold for expressing certain aspects of the show, telling different stories, reinventing plots and characters, and, perhaps most importantly, having fun. GIFs are really, really fun. I'm having a massive flashback to my senior project here, thinking about how much fandoms are about play and playing around (which would explain why they have such an interesting in acting and in actors - they both "play in the sandbox" in many ways) and GIFs can allow for an ease in expression, quick, witty humor, and simple entertainment. So way to go GIFs; you are awesome.
And, because I am slowly becoming more tech savvy, I figured out how to share that paper I wrote on authorship! Yay! So, if you're interested in reading ten pages of me blathering on about fandoms and authorship and The Avengers, give that a read. In the meantime, I'm going to figure out where I want to upload my senior project so that's finally part of this blog. Since that's a major part of this whole crazy endeavor, after all.

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