A comment by “nerdybirdy” in the discussion section of a Jezebel article entitled Trial Starts for Teen Who Hired a Gang to Steal Her Roommate’s Baby

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 10.58.27 PMcontext



Iconic Language

  • Online discourse
  • Online media
  • Images
  • Video

Cultural Language

  • New media
  • Online commenting sections
  • American pop culture

Theoretical Language

  • Kress & Van Leeuwen’s discussion of modality and multimodality


The artifact I am examining is a GIF of Anderson Cooper used in response to an online article. On a basic level, it shows a man with a facial expression that indicates shock, and then a disgusted disbelief. On a more specific cultural level, it shows Anderson Cooper, a popular CNN anchor, expressing these things. This GIF is posted in the discussion section of an article, which is a humorous account of a harebrained criminal scheme.

The medium of Gawker Media’s comment section allows for a wide array of visual responses; images, videos, and GIFs can be embedded. In order to understand the choice of a GIF, we need to understand why other options—static image, video, and text—were not used.  A static image would have been too limiting. This GIF has two parts: Anderson Cooper looking shocked, and then the disappointment after his shock. A static image would have only been able to show one of these. A video would have been unwieldy in this context. People quickly scroll through comment sections, and a video would have required a user to stop scrolling, click a play button, and wait for the video to load. Kress and Van Leeuwen (1996) state that there are two codes of integration of semiotic modes: spatial composition, where “all elements are spatially co-present” (p. 177), and temporal composition, which “operates in texts which unfold over time” (p. 177). A GIF functions in between these two codes of integration. There is a temporal element to the Anderson Cooper GIF, however the full motion unfolds in such a short time frame, and there is no element outside of the image itself, that it is mostly spatially composed. This has the benefit of allowing nerdybirdy, the commenter, to direct her or his meaning to a specific reaction without interrupting the flow of reading for the audience.

A textual response would have been insufficient for nerdybirdy’s true reaction. There are many different cultural levels at interplay to this image. On the surface, it is of shock and disappointment. But there’s a deeper level. The disappointment on Anderson Cooper’s face is like that of a parent who caught their child misbehaving: he clearly shows disapproval by the shake of his head, but his lips are upturned in a small smile. This has the effect of implying that the criminals in the article are like children—so naive that they are harmless. Kress and Van Leeuwen (1996) would argue that this image is high on the modality scale, representing a “natural” image that is neither too abstracted nor too hyper-real for our cultural expectations (p. 158). The context of new media in our society means that high quality representations of real subjects (whether they are human or not) are an expectation. Only a representation of a real human face could communicate our cultural understanding of a parent/child dynamic. The choice of Anderson Cooper has a rhetorical significance to the American audience as well. He carries an ethos as a trustworthy journalist; therefore, the image of him reacting carries a more authoritative tone than if it was a random, unrecognized person reacting. It is also funny to see a serious journalist break his professional demeanor, suggesting that this story is so ridiculous that it causes him to do so. His image is also appropriate in the Gawker Media context. As a gay man who works for CNN and appears in various entertainment outlets outside of journalism, he is a liberal icon and widely liked by a younger audience.

In sum, all of the levels of communication afforded by the Anderson Cooper image could not have effectively been communicated by text. Static image would not have sufficed as his facial expression would have been limited, thus communicating a different meaning. Video would have been too complex for the format, and would have interrupted the flow of a largely text-based discussion section. A GIF was a silly reaction that communicated a specific meaning, in line with the humorous tone and content of the article.

Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.


2 thoughts on “ENGL706 – Heuristic Development & Artifact Analysis

  1. Ashley, this is so fascinating, and it actually has me thinking of some of the theories Donovan applied in his heuristic and analysis, namely Belk’s extended self. You seem to almost say that NerdyBirdy is using this GIF as a mask, as an extension or representation of self. NerdyBirdy is Anderson Cooper (borrowing his ethos, his expression, his movements) with this argumentative GIF. I wonder if that might be an interesting theory to apply to GIFs. You both really have a very similar artifact. He was analyzing a static emoticon, but there are some interesting overlaps.
    I think you use Kress well here to establish what the GIF is and does. I wonder if there are related theories that you can apply to get at the question of what the GIF means, the significance of its use. I like how you phrase it: to understand why people use a GIF, we need to understand why they don’t use another medium. I think Kress answers that question well.

  2. Ashley, I agree with much of your assessment — and enjoyed your artifact, too!

    Building off of what Megan wrote above, I think NerdyBirdy is, in a way, using the GIF as a mask (as the human reaction), but is also working within the context of the GIF(T) messages many respond with to events and in comments. There is, dare I write it, genre conventions on how to respond in comments and posting your reaction via GIFs is definitely one of them. On the one hand, then, this is what you wrote about for the authority and the reaction of Anderson Cooper himself. On the other hand, well, I can easily imagine Cooper’s latest GIF is just that, too: the latest GIF for such a reaction. There is a certain amount of social capital built on using the latest joke or reaction for such comments.

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