A Picture Is Worth Four or Five Words

In an essay titled “The Ancient and the Ultimate”, Isaac Asimov tried to imagine the future of books. After progressing through increasing stages of sophistication, what remained was–well, the kind of books we have today: the ones that sit on shelves and are made from trees. They were, he was arguing, already as good as they could possibly be.

When I think of the future of books, my vision isn’t quite so rosy. What I imagine is pages filled with nothing but one animated GIF after another. Why use words when a 5-second animation of Jeff Daniels slapping his forehead is so much more descriptive?

It seems to me that nearly everyone I know communicates primarily through animated GIFs. (Is it pronounced “Jif” like the peanut butter, or “gif” like a present minus the t? More than three decades in I.T. and I still don’t know the answer.) They are particularly common in comment threads of Facebook posts. Typing out “get the popcorn” is no longer adequate to convey ones meaning. A 6-second movie is required so that you can watch someone with maniacal eyes reach over and over into a box of popcorn, trying to stuff it all into their mouths.

Half of the GIFs I see come from popular television shows or movies. Steve Carell seems to be particularly popular for his wide variety of facial expressions. I guess our own expressions aren’t good enough. I don’t people making animated GIFs of their own expression. It is as if we can’t think of a good way to express ourselves, so we will let someone else do it for us.

I was thinking about this, and it occurred to me that there is some amount of convenience to this kind of appropriation. Animated GIFs are like clichés. Now there are people who abhor clichés, but I don’t really mind them. I think of them as syntactic subroutines. When someone says, “It is what it is,” we all know what they mean because we are all familiar with the function of that particular subroutine. I suppose that animated GIFs are just another iteration of the cliché, a modernization of the verbal subroutine.

I tend to avoid animated GIFs because it seems to me that I can type whatever I mean faster than it would take me to find an appropriate GIF. I am easily distracted (especially when writing) and a search for one animated GIF would likely lead to half an hour down a rabbit hole. I’d end up with a dozen GIFs that I thought were good for some purpose, but not the one I set out looking for. I’d then find an excuse to use them. Those GIFs would burn holes in my virtual pockets. The thing I intended to say (“Can’t wait to see you!”) would not only never get written, but would be forgotten.

There does seem something catching about the animated GIF. Once one person posts one in a thread, everyone else feels the needs to post one. They are like digital yawns in that regard. I also sense a bit of competition when it comes to the animated GIF. Who can find the GIF that best expresses the thought most precisely. I find this to be a daunting competition because without the words on the screen to express it, I’m never quite sure what that thought it.

I realize that I might come across as a grumpy old man with these thoughts on animated GIFs. To that all I can say is:

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

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