A GIF is Worth 1,000 Words

Two MIT students are exploring how animated GIFs can be used as a language of emotions.

From second-by-second Olympic replays to coverage of presidential debates, GIFs’ uncanny ability to put the slightest movements under the microscope has spread to every corner of internet culture.

Now, two graduate students at the MIT Media Lab have embarked on a new project called GIFGIF that aims to turn these mesmerizing little loops into a database of emotions. Like a Rosetta Stone of feelings, creators Travis Rich and Kevin Hu hope that eventually GIFGIF will be able to help people match an emotion with the perfect GIF.

GIFGIF is inspired by Place Pulse, a similar project out of the MIT Media Lab (which also produced Scratch). Place Pulse gives users two pictures of different cities and asks them to rank which one looks more depressing, boring, safer, livelier, etc. It’s collecting all the data as a way to study how the subjective perception of urban areas corresponds with other data sets like violent crime, creativity or economic growth.

The process is similar over at GIFGIF. Users are given two random GIFs and are prompted to rank which one best conveys fear, disgust, relief, or one of 14 other emotions. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes you have to study them for a second to see which one really pins an emotion like guilt.

However, while the methods are similar, the goals of GIFGIF are very different than Place Pulse’s.

As Hu explained to Rachel Feltman at The Atlantic, first up is a GIF-to-text translator.

“I want people to be able to put in a Shakespearian sonnet and get out a GIF set,” said Hu.

GIFGIF’s unusual plans are only the latest turn in the the meteoric resurgence of the animated GIF. Though the file format has been around for decades, Ann Friedman, journalist and widely-recognized GIF guru, says that with a lot of help from Tumblr, GIFs have taken on a life of their own.

“Like the Twitter hashtag, which has transitioned from a functional way of sorting content to its own part of speech, the animated GIF has gone from a simple file type to its own mode of expression,” Friedman wrote over at Poynter.

This unique mode of expression is why GIFs could have a place in education. The GIFGIF creators recently heard from an ESL teacher who is using the site to teach words for different emotions, according The Atlantic. The article doesn’t go into how exactly the teacher is doing this, but it’s not hard to imagine some possibilities. How exactly do you draw the word “frustrated” on a flashcard? It’s pretty easy with the right GIF.

Rich and Hu elaborated on using GIFs to communicate to Boston magazine: “We want to contribute to the lowering of those barriers, acting as a dictionary between words and GIFs. If people can communicate their emotions and ideas almost universally, breaking the barriers of language—that would be powerful, and that’s our vision.”

Beyond eventually using GIFs  to communicate across languages, Hu and Rich imagine using the data to explore how different cultures judge the representation of emotions.

As the GIFGIF site explains, “Does a GIF’s emotional content vary between cultures? For examples, what is the best representation of happiness for Germans, compared with Canadians?”

The duo also told Wired.co.uk they’ve heard there could be potential applications in autism detection. When a user’s choices between GIFs differ greatly from a well agreed-upon emotion, it could mean the person reacts to emotions differently. One could also imagine therapists using GIFs to teach children with autism how to recognize common emotions, given that doing so accurately is one of the more difficult tasks for autistic children.

However, the emotion research is also a bit perplexing. While GIFs exist in a silent, endless loop, complex human emotions don’t exist in a vacuum. An eye roll can be playful or sarcastic depending on the context—something a single GIF probably can’t capture without some surrounding information. That’s why they’re funniest when they’re illustrating reactions, not just standing alone. So while using GIFGIF’s tool to find that perfect GIF might be fun, the serious implications of GIFs and the GIFGIF project remain to be seen.

Until then, perhaps it’s best to appreciate GIFs for what they are: a one-of-a-kind medium for expressing emotions online.

Tim Burke, a prolific GIF creator whose work garnered a lengthy New York Times profile, thinks of them as even more than that: “It’s an art object. You’re taking this little moment and making it exist in perpetuity, because it constantly loops.”

Published April 10, 2014