The remix is a subject of growing concern and intellectual debate in the past few decades. It has gone from a relatively circumscribed musical practice to an essential element of our entire creative culture, with notable examples including everything from Grumpy Cat to Warhol’s screen prints.
As described by Eduardo Navas, “remix culture can be defined as the global activity consisting of the creative and efficient exchange of information made possible by digital technologies that is supported by the practice of cut/copy and paste.” Just as digital technologies have made remix an increasingly accessible creative practice, the Internet has played an essential role in circulating remixed works and helping to support our flourishing remix culture.
But remix culture isn’t all fun and games. It has also garnered a significant amount of attention for being a politically charged and potentially transgressive practice, raising questions about intellectual property and changing notions of creativity and originality. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig devoted an entire book to our growing remix culture and its legal and cultural implications.
Despite all the hubbub, I have to question how pervasive this practice actually is, particularly at the level of the standard media consumer. Sometimes it can be hard to see this “remix culture” that supposedly surrounds us when we are up to our ears in professionally produced multi-million dollar mass media products. Even remix itself has been co-opted by the Hollywood-industrial-complex. Yet there is one particular phenomenon that exemplifies the power and pervasive everydayness of remix: the gif! The gif is a very simple and accessible form of remix that draws directly on the power of mass media, but subverts it for extremely everyday kinds of creativity and expression.
For those of you who don’t know, a “gif” refers to a specific file format, like .jpg or .png. This format is notable for its small size and its ability to support looping animation. But the gif is more than just a format. In a blog post announcing a move away from the actual gif format as it nears obsoletion, image hosting site imgur claimed that “GIFs are no longer about .GIFs–the culture of the GIF now trumps the file format.” The gif is a very simple technology that has led to a very complex set of media practices and consumption.
In comments sections across the Internet there is an ongoing and heated debate about the proper pronunciation of the word “gif”. History has shown that the original creator of the file format wanted it to be a soft g, as in “jif”, but when did facts ever stop a good Internet argument?
Andy Baio makes the interesting and somewhat tongue-in-cheek argument that while “jif” may be appropriate when talking about the file format, perhaps “gif” may be the appropriate name for the actual practices of giffing. As he says, “‘JIF’ is the format. ‘GIF’ is the culture.” While the pronunciation debate is totally arbitrary in the end, I would argue that these two different pronunciations highlight the split between the original technology and the culture it has spawned. This split explains why you might hear someone say “I love gifs!” but not “I love jpgs!”. When we say “gifs” we are not referring to a format (not referring to “jifs”)- we are referring to a broad set of cultural practices with their own aesthetics and communities of use.
In the wide world of gifs, I am particularly interested by the reaction gif. The reaction gif specifically captures emotional and bodily reactions.
These gifs are typically used in online conversations to illustrate a specific reaction to a situation or comment. For some excellent examples, check out whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com or reddit.com/r/reactiongifs/. These gifs are particularly interesting because they are used as a form of personal expression. Through the reaction gif, the content of tightly controlled mass media products becomes a tool for everyday interpersonal communication. Remix is known as a strategy for turning the media consumer into the media producer, and with the reaction gif the remixer does not need and real expertise or skills in order to take this content and repurpose it for their own specific ends. As such, this pervasive and incredibly accessible form of remix is an interesting point of entry for understanding the role of remix practices in our culture more generally.
In keeping with Marshall McLuhan, I want to ground my analysis of the reaction gif in the medium itself. Carl Goodman, the director of the Museum of Moving Image in New York, said that “The GIF occupies very fertile ground between the still and the moving image.” The gif is a kind of phenomenological hybrid of photography and film. A gif is not truly still like a photograph, but its temporal scope is so incredibly limited that there isn’t a continuous flow to the gif as there is in a piece of film. This limited temporal scope is just enough to carry a single slice of the dynamic, captivating movement that characterizes film- but the short duration and infinite looping allows this moment to be closely examined and analyzed, as with a photograph.
Hampus Hagman argues that the gif captures the essence of cinema: movement. But it’s extremely limited temporal scope strips away the narrative which surrounds and contextualizes that movement. Hagman describes the resulting content as “gesture”, suggesting that that the movement captured by the gif may be stripped of a larger narrative, but it still carries a particular kind of meaning:
The gif has a unique ability to capture and isolate bodily gesture. This makes the reaction gif seem like a natural, almost obvious use of this medium. In the context of our woefully disembodied communications environment, the reaction gif becomes a powerful communicative tool, bringing back in the meanings carried so powerfully and elegantly through bodily actions.
The reaction gif acts as a particular kind of semantic unit ready to be inserted into the flow of any conversation, like a kind of uber-emoji. It is not just a form of entertainment- it is a tool which allows us to enhance and augment our primarily text-based online communications.
Of course, unlike in face-to-face communication, this semantic meaning is not enacted by our own bodies but via the bodies of mass media. Through the reaction gif, Jack Nicholson’s face becomes a tool to express how I feel about Monday mornings. There is a particular humor in making these deeply spectacular (in the Benjaminian sense of the word) bodies enact our everyday and mundane lives. The reaction gif (as opposed to the fan-gif or other practices) functions precisely by playing with the distance between its current use and the original narrative context. Big bird communicates the experiences of a drunk teen, a cat communicates the experience of dropping a tiny screw, an underpaid mall cop communicates the experience of a 20-something girl dealing with drama amongst her friends. This is a quintessential example of the context collapse that characterizes so much of new media practices and products. Reaction gifs play with an ironic reuse of mass media, bending, subverting and distorting the original meaning by putting it in a new context.
This ironic play between different levels of meaning, both from the original source material and the new context into which it is being used, requires a particular kind of expertise. It requires a particular kind of cultural literacy and an ability to reinterpret and reimagine what is given to you via mass media. It requires expertise in remix. This is not a technical expertise— indeed, one need not actually make anything at all. Reaction gifs exist in abundance across the web, in searchable databases like giphy.com, ready to be plucked and repurposed for a thousand different conversations. Instead, this is a kind of conceptual expertise. While other forms of remix may remain inaccessible because they require extensive technological expertise and/or dedicated creative drive, the reaction gif has almost no barriers to entry. It shows that remix does not just manifest itself through epic remix videos or a highly-produced and legally questionable mashup albums– but often through much smaller remix-acts that pervade the life of everyday prosumers. And it is indeed an act. The reaction gif is not an objet d’art– it is a tool for communication. In the reaction gif we see that remix not only pervades through our culture, but has infiltrated into our first and most basic form of media: language.
- Baio, Andy. “‘JIF’ Is the Format. ‘GIF’ Is the Culture.” Medium. Medium, 29 Apr. 2014. Web. 07 Dec. 2014. https://medium.com/message/jif-is-the-format-gif-is-the-culture-af8673796c44
- Fish, Adam. “Remix Culture Is a Myth.” Savage Minds. N.p., 12 Apr. 2010. Web. 07 Dec. 2014. http://savageminds.org/2010/04/12/remix-culture-is-a-myth/
- Hagman, Hampus. “The Digital Gesture: Rediscovering Cinematic Movement Through Gifs.” Refractory. University of Melbourne, 29 Dec. 2012. Web. 7 Dec. 2014. http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2012/12/29/hagman/
- McKay, Sally. “The Affect of Animated GIFs (Tom Moody, Petra Cortright, Lorna Mills) | Art & Education.” Art & Education. Art & Education, 14 Sept. 2009. Web. 07 Dec. 2014. http://www.artandeducation.net/paper/the-affect-of-animated-gifs-tom-moody-petra-cortright-lorna-mills/
- Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
- Lethem, Jonathan. “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Harpers Magazine. Harpers Magazine, Feb. 2007. Web. 07 Dec. 2014. http://harpers.org/archive/2007/02/the-ecstasy-of-influence/
- Navas, Eduardo. “Regressive and reflexive mashups in sampling culture.”Mashup Cultures (2010): 157-177. http://remixtheory.net/?p=444
- Uhlin, Graig. “Playing in the Gif (t) Economy.” Games and Culture (2014): 1555412014549805. http://gac.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/09/03/1555412014549805.abstract