(This is a big jumbled mess of thoughts that I may not fully believe come an hour from now. It’s just easier to type it out and come back to it later. Expect lots of edits. Also, I should probably expect lots of unfollows.)
Emotion, Reaction gifs, George Orwell and the Feels.
I’ve been obsessing over the evolution of gif language on Tumblr lately.
In ancient pre-Tumblr times (aka Livejournal), if we wanted to talk about how something in our lives made us feel, we’d use words and sentences and paragraphs in order to say “I saw this thing and it made me so happy” or “I had this thing happen and it made me so sad.” If we were sophisticated, we’d accompany that post with a mood icon or an emoticon.
Being the advanced society I imagine Tumblr to be, we no longer have to use sentences and emoticons. We figured out how to express ourselves by finding moments within common points of culture (movies, tv, YouTube videos) and posting that moment, that emotion, as a single 500kb reaction gif.
This is happy.
This is sad.
This is angry.
This is overwhelmed with undisclosed emotion.
Remember that last one. It will come back later.
All of this, to me, is absolutely incredible. Many of these emotions are recognized universally, forming a visual shorthand that can be used in place of entire paragraphs and identified across some languages and cultures.
While the emotions above are simple ones, there are reaction gifs that convey more compound ideas like ‘i have conflicting emotions’ or ‘i am overwhelmed with emotion’ or ‘i can’t even deal with the emotions I am feeling right now.’
(All of the above, btw, is the basis of the talk I gave at MoMA last year about GIF culture.)
And while people still use gifs conveying particular emotions, it soon became fashion to use a gif to express not the particular emotion you are feeling but to instead acknowledge the presence of emotion in general.
Much of this is ironic and intentionally comedic. But a long examination of posts on various reaction tags leads me to believe that some people are using these gifs with complete sincerity. It’s almost as if they were upset that they allowed something, anything, even art, television, or literature, to make them feel emotional. It’s like a conditioned form of You X, You Lose.
This wouldn’t be an issue except that, well, you’re supposed to let things “get” to you. That is the point of art and culture. Browsing the “#Steven Moffat is a troll” tag, it’s sometimes hard to discern who is using the tag ironically and who isn’t.
Anyway, back to the emotions — when these gifs crossed over from image form to tag form, they were expressed as the tags #i just have a lot of feelings and #my emotions. This was later whittled down to the more efficient #all my feels and eventually reduced even further to a single word representing all emotion, #feels.
It became entirely possible for two people to watch the same exact episode of, say, Doctor Who, post about their #feels and have it mean two entirely different things.
If they happened to spell out exactly what feels were, or if perhaps they posted other contextual tags like #do not want, that context may have indicated the intention of the use of the word #feels but not always. Different people have different relationships with the same exact emotions. I like it when a character makes me sad. Other people are horrified at feeling sad. The language is clear but the effect is muddy.
If a group of people all agree that they are full of #feels and one person takes that as an endorsement and justification to go off and do something stupid, like, say, sending the creator of your favorite tv show death threats over Twitter… well, maybe those feels need to be explored more. It’s an easy way to make one feel overwhelmed with undisclosed emotion.
I can’t help but look at all of this and see a parallel to George Orwell’s concept of ‘Newspeak’. Remember the fictional language from the novel 1984? That was a version of English where the vocabulary and language was reduced for the purpose of narrowing the range of accepted thought. While I don’t see anything sinister in the move from a wide range of particular emotions to the singular word #feels, I do wonder what will come in to widen the paradigm again.
I actually disagree.
Not about the fact that GIFs are changing tumblr-speak. No, that’s… well.. bloody obvious. But GIFs are, by and large, actually derived from memes which have been coined in GIF form. They’re analogous, in my opinion, to metaphors and idioms. Which, despite what you might think, have ALWAYS been around in GREAT excess.
Language is not a mathematical equation. It is, also, not what your English teacher wishes it was. That is, we do not (hardly ever, in fact) speak in perfect sentences. Neither do we often speak in complete or full ideas. Well, sure, we do at, say, meetings or formal discussions. But more often than not these are instigated with a common goal in mind. The goal of completion, or the arrival on some idea.
Natural speech, in fact, is much more hapzard. It’s crazy. It’s whacky. Have you LISTENED to the way friends talk amongst each other? Real friends, excited friends? Our conversations, when we’re really into them, are full of out-pours of VARIOUS information, often mixed in with emotions and opinions and random inserts from completely unrelated stories.
GIFs are NOT a devolution to that. They’re another form of communication, just like written and spoken language. And I think the reason they’ve caught on is because they fill the gesture gap that has been sitting so blatantly empty ever since the internet came up.
Emoticons, too, at one point were thought to have completely destroyed our ability to express feelings. But they don’t destroy it. They support it. Language functions through MANY media, not just our mouths and typed letters.
Did you know that language development has been shown to be directly linked with motor function? The balance we need to use while physically walking (and trust me, on a biological level, walking upright while multitasking with various other muscles is quite an achievement) rivals the careful syncrony we need inside of our mouth to coordinate breath, tongue, lip and teeth movements in order to produce rapid speech. Not to mention - visual input has a lot to do with langauge interpreting. If you listen to the sound “ga” being spoken while looking at a video of someone saying ”ba” you will actually hear “da”, which is an approximation between the two. (That, boys and girls, is actually related to something called Mirror Neurons, but let’s not get too deep into this…)
TL;DR: we LIKE looking at things when we’re receiving langauge imput. We LIKE gesturing, and we LIKE gesture.
GIFs allow us the ability to gesture through the media of commonly seen memes, which are easy to recognize because of their common recurrence. Tumblr has created a pool of a dialect which is full of phrases that are otherwise unknown to other speakers. And does that make it bad? No. Not any worse than doctorly jargon.
Just because neurobiologists speak to each other in words that are too long doesn’t mean they’ll completely lose the ability to communicate in shorter words when the need calls for it.
So, too, with the tumblr-dialect.
I, for one, am happy to be a part of that. :)
I think I’m inclined to agree more with the second poster as far as reaction gifs goes, but I think there’s also the issue of the term “feels” as a nonspecific type of emotion. (Urban Dictionary can’t decide whether it means sadness, fangirling/fanboying, or sexual interest.) I think it can be useful to have vague or undefined terms though, for when you don’t know how to define what you’re experiencing. What do you mean by “feels”? Do you generally have a specific meaning for it, or is the vagueness part of the point?