When you get a text from a friend, is your immediate reaction to reply with a GIF? Do you know which GIF to send, or do you begin to scroll, searching for the perfect one? If so, it may mean more than you realize, according to researchers at BYU.
GIF use has become increasingly common — even among older generations — as people realize how effectively they communicate humor, allow users to express themselves, and maintain relationships. BYU communications professor Scott Church said even though people don’t think much about their GIF usage, understanding them and how we use them can help us better understand ourselves and how we communicate in today's media environment.
According to a new study by Church and a team of BYU coauthors, GIF users fall into one of three categories: GIF Enthusiasts, Searchers, or Referentialists. Read on to find out what kind of GIF user you are, and what it says about you.
GIF Enthusiasts are those who are savvy in internet culture, Church says, those who know GIFs well and enjoy using them to make others laugh. Enthusiasts see GIFs as a meaningful way to express themselves and like to impress others with their knowledge and familiarity with GIFs.
Enthusiasts love the emotion GIFs allow them to express through text, and understand they are a richer form of media than emojis or pictures. They are mainly motivated by the communicative potential of GIFs, and that motivation comes from focusing on the social benefits of sending GIFs.
“I hate that my body language cannot be expressed through texting; too much of our communication is lost,” said one GIF Enthusiast from this study. “I think GIFs help bring restore a bit of what is lost.”
Enthusiasts are also well-versed in internet culture, and often want to be recognized as such. Emojis can seem stagnant and overused; to avoid the same thing happening with their own GIFs, enthusiasts stay updated on which GIFs are popular and relatable.
For Searchers, it’s all about the “thrill of the hunt,” searching for that one perfect GIF. Each situation is unique, and they like to find the GIF that exactly matches what they want to express.
One participant said, “A friend will do something and then I’ll find one that shows what they did.”
Searchers see GIFs as a humorous and lighthearted form of communication and avoid using them to discuss genuine or serious topics. They prefer quick, easy-to-watch, GIFs and don’t think romantic or long GIFs are worth their time. Searchers often enjoy scrolling to find the ideal GIF, viewing it as a challenge, often resulting in obscure GIFs that complement a situation perfectly.
Referentialists are usually involved in pop culture and dislike having to search for GIFs. They are much more likely to use GIFs as a response to a GIF they were sent because it references a common interest such as a TV show or popular meme.
One Referentialist said, “I love using pop culture... it’s kind of like an inside joke,” while another said, “If there’s someone who likes to use GIFs, I try to reciprocate that... to match their style.”
Referentialists often use fandom-specific GIFs, as that helps them avoid the process of searching for GIFs and potentially gives them ways to relate to their audience. They often send GIFs out of social obligation, a reciprocation for one they were sent, and assume that their friends will find it more fun if it is connected to a funny TV show or game.
Referentialists also send GIFs as a method to avoid awkwardness.
“Sometimes people say things that are awkward or in poor taste,” said one study participant. “You don’t really want to respond, but you have the obligation to. So, a GIF is a funny, semi-sarcastic way of responding to it. And it can help divert the situation.”
Fellow BYU professors Tom Robinson and Clark Callahan, along with former BYU graduate student Jesse King, were co-authors on the study, which was recently published in Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies.