Postmodern Identity in the New Social News:
A case study of GIF discourse in Gawker Media
News is not consumed in a vacuum, and that is especially true in the age of digital media. Bird (2011) suggests that “the ‘stories’ of news emerge as much through interpersonal communication as from the specific texts” (p. 495). What was once discussed around water coolers now has a space in comment sections at the bottom of online articles. While textual discourse remains constant, the secondary mode of news discussion is increasingly shifting from verbal in person to visual online.
Gawker Media is a representative example of news discussion that takes place by means of multimedia. While many traditional news outlets such as Washington Post and New York Times limit the comment sections to text-only responses, Gawker, which was founded as an online-only news organization, supports hypertext, images, embedded videos, and GIFs.
The subject of this paper will be a consideration of how GIFs are used in online discourse. A GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) is a type of image format that supports both static and animated images. When I discuss GIFs in this paper, I mean the animated format; this is how they are colloquially understood to by the average online user. GIFs are unique in that, in terms of multimodality, they are a halfway point between static image and video—they provide a more energetic, robust visual than a static image, but lack a video’s mode of sound. They are used in many contexts online—when the site format allows, GIFs can be found across social media, discussion boards, blog posts, and, increasingly, as content for news articles.
This paper will be a case study of GIFs posted by readers in response to Gawker Media articles. I argue that commenters use GIFs as a means to craft temporary identities in response to the postmodern, anonymous nature of online news discourse. Kress and van Leeuwen’s (1996) theoretical framework of social semiotics and modality will help to shed light on the visual nature of GIFs and their semiotic function in the specific rhetorical context of Gawker’s article comment sections. I seek to answer the question: in which instances are GIFs used in favor of other available textual and multimedia formats in the context of the news comment section?
First, I will discuss the historical context of GIFs and the current context of the Gawker website. This is to situate the rhetorical context of GIFs, as well as to justify my methods of data collection. Next, I will discuss postmodern identity performance in reference to crafting a persona for online discussion. Then, I will apply social semiotics and modal affordances to identity performance online. Finally, I will conclude by pointing to future research possibilities.
Contexts and Methods
The GIF, developed in 1987, has been around for about as long as the internet (Ram, 2012). The format’s origins can help situate its current reputation as a humorous means of communication. As Buck (2012) points out, the GIF has always had “an inherent element of fun.” It was developed as a moving image format that could be loaded on the slow modems of early internet connections, and gained widespread popularity with silly images such as the pixilated dancing banana and the dancing baby. The recently-fashionable genre of “reaction GIFs” was popularized in 2012 by a tumblr blog entitled “#WhatShouldWeCallMe,” in which the authors posted GIFs with textual descriptions creating fictional scenarios (Buck, 2012). This was the precursor for the current trend of posting GIFs in reaction to Gawker articles. While there is no universally acceptable way to use GIFs, this paper will attempt to use examples from Gawker to identify general trends.
The rhetorical context of Gawker as an online-only news format developed in the age of social media is relevant to understanding identity performance via GIF, so an overview of Gawker’s functionality is necessary. The difference in site design between news companies that originated online versus established news providers that transferred online from print warrants its own robust rhetorical visual analysis; however, the purpose of this paper will be to focus on Gawker in reference to its user-generated media. While Gawker does not shy away from serious subject matters, the tone of their content is much more lighthearted than that of articles produced by news organizations with a more traditional, serious ethos. The navigation of the Gawker site is set up similarly to a social media site; whereas a traditional news site has archives, Gawker only has chronological posts. The effect of this gives Gawker a similar feel to the timeline layout on social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter—a post is only so visible as it is recent. As time passes and more posts are created, older posts fade to obscurity. This temporal layout that discourages re-discovering old articles speaks to the value of timeliness, while an archival system would be appropriate for an organization that values timelessness. A more explicit example of Gawker’s prioritizing of current news is the left column of the site—secondary to the main story feed—where there are two separate “trending” feeds that update with the most popular stories at the moment. I suggest that the news content on Gawker combined with the timeline layout makes for a new hybrid news-social media platform.
The social media context is essential to the use of GIFs. While the news content provides a platform for discussion, the social media-esque site design encourages a playful tone of discussion, which then leaves room for the historically silly GIF format to be used. The discussion, however, is not always civil. Gawker’s allowance of multimedia in comment sections became notorious when Jezebel, a feminist-centered branch of Gawker Media, received an influx of violent, sexually-explicit GIFs (Coen, 2014). The current comment system is a result of Gawker’s response—comments are heavily moderated, and only appear automatically at the bottom of the article once approved by a site administrator (Jezebel Staff, 2014). Readers have the option of viewing unmoderated comments, but they do so at their own risk.
The site layout of Gawker and the history of the site’s comment system informed my methods of data collection. I collected 13 GIFs total over a period of one day, April 2, 2015. April 2nd was somewhat random and somewhat strategic—it was a typical news day, with no major holidays or world events that would have affected the regular news flow. Because Gawker does not have an archival feature, I was not able to view a comprehensive list of the articles published on one day. I collected data from all articles posted to Gawker’s Twitter on April 2nd: it was easier to navigate Gawker’s Twitter timeline, which loads a new page automatically as the user scrolls, rather than the Gawker.com site, which only displays a few articles at a time and requires the user to click through each page to go back. I collected 26 articles total, with 10 containing comments with GIF responses. For the sake of maintaining a consistent rhetorical context, and to limit my data sample to a manageable amount, I only collected GIFs that were posted in direct response to the article, not in response to another commenter.
Irving Goffman (1956) characterizes identity as a performance. He says that “when an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them” (p. 10). Clevenger (2003) notes the appropriateness of applying Goffman’s sociological theories, which were developed for physical interpersonal interactions, to “computer-mediated exchanges” (p. 12). She says that this highlights the online environment as “an alternate venue for examining” interpersonal encounters (p. 13), rather than the death of human contact. This falls in line with Bird’s (2011) observations on the migration of the social function of news from in person to online.
With identity performance in the context of online discourse in mind, Abrudan’s (2011) discussion of postmodern identity in a world “strongly mediated by the images though mass-communication means” (p. 23) leads us to the role of GIFs in Gawker’s comment section. Gawker’s commenter identities are anonymous—the screen name of the user is almost never tied back to the real-life identity of the user. Individual user profiles, while available, are not a central or widely-used feature of the site. Therefore, a user is reinventing his/her identity performance with every comment on a new article. Abrudan (2011) notes that “in a more and more complex world, excessively fragmented and with an accelerated rhythm of renewal, identity becomes more fragile, it loses stability, always being subjected to changes, adjustments” (p. 25). Because identity can change so rapidly, people rely on mass media for representation of self, as “familiar, easily recognizable narratives, topics, and characters” (Abrudan, 2011, p. 25) are easily understood by a wide audience, with little effort on the performer’s part. GIFs are rarely original content; in most cases, they are clips from mass media, stripped of their larger context, and remixed into a silent story of mere seconds.
I observed several types of ways that GIFs were used to perform identity by commenters on Gawker: as a hyperbolic projection of the commenter’s own reaction, as a playful imitation of another’s reaction, and as an insider to the Gawker community. The article “Furious 7’s Paul Walker Tribute Made Everyone (Not Me) Cry (Okay Me)” (Evans, 2015) contains instances of all three types of responses. Manitoidian responded with a projection of his/her own reaction to the sad reminder of a popular actor’s death:
The user appropriated a moment from a popular Youtube video to reflect his/her sadness. It is clearly self-referential; the image itself contains a first person singular statement, and Manitoidian anchors the image with another first person singular line. Had the GIF been posted without text, it would still be understood as self-referential by virtue of the fact that when a person replies to an article, they are doing so in reaction to the article. Without text indicating otherwise, it can be inferred that a GIF is standing in place of what would have otherwise been a verbal or textual response.
Burlivesleftnut’s response is an example of a playful imitation of another person’s reaction; in his/her comment, he/she explicitly attributes the reaction to other people in the theater.
Here, Burlivesleftnut takes on two identities: she/he uses the GIF to imitate the audience’s reaction, and describes his/her own reaction in the text accompanying the GIF. He/she seperately says that they “cried,” textually indicating their own reaction as separate from the GIF.
Finally, DickRick performs the identity of a community insider, responding with a GIF referencing a joke from a popular sitcom, Seinfeld:
The user’s comment is vague, creating a sense of an inside joke, where only those who “belong” will understand. He/she is posting the GIF with the expectation that those in the Gawker community are part of his/her community, with a shared cultural knowledge.
While the GIFs assist in performing the users’ identities in different ways, there are some important similarities to note. First, the subjects of the GIFs are all humans, popular culture icons, and, more specifically, white males. In the world of postmodern identity crafting described by Abrudan (2011), users need easily recognizable identities. A human face (the GIF subjects) is the easiest way to represent a human face (the commenter). Popular culture icons create instant recognition, and viewers can immediately grasp on to any cultural undercurrents associated with the icons. The second image, provided by Burlivesleftnut, shows an old man crying. The scene is from a popular movie franchise, The Hunger Games. To an American audience, it is generally understood that the subject is a famous actor, in the middle of performing as a villain, so we are comfortable with seeing him cry, and can appreciate Burlivesleftnut’s joke. If the subject was an unknown old man crying, however, the audience would be distracted, likely even offended, that Burlivesleftnut would exploit an old man’s sadness as a joke.
A final point to note is that is that the subjects from all three GIFs are white men. I will suggest two possible reasons for the homogeneity, being especially cautious to avoid generalizing such a small sample size. One explanation falls in line with the previous two characteristics: a white male is an easy identity to slip into. Privileged as the “norm” in society, a white male would not cause other readers to think twice. A culturally underrepresented subject, however, would be more likely to make readers pause, taking a moment to contemplate if there is a deeper meaning. Because black women, for example, are not considered the default cultural norm in popular culture, users may wonder if there is subtext to the commenter’s post, and become distracted from the joke. The second explanation is that because white men dominate popular culture, there are less GIFs readily available featuring other races and genders.
The second major similarity between the identities that all three GIFs perform is that there is an element of humor. The first GIF references a silly YouTube video, and even if that was not known, the text within the GIF is a joke euphemizing crying. The second GIF is an overreaction; the subject is openly sobbing, while the subject of the Gawker article is a pop culture piece (an admittedly sad piece, however it would be unrealistic to react by sobbing in real life). Not only does the last GIF reference a funny scene in a popular TV show, but it is a seemingly incongruous connection, until DickRick makes the connection between Junior Mints, the main topic of the skit, and movie theaters, the main topic of the article.
As demonstrated by the discussion in the previous section, GIFs are highly contextual, and their meaning is contingent on both the context of the article and the larger cultural associations with the visual of the GIF itself. As Kress and van Leeuwen (1996) note, meaning-making within a culture operates under constraints. They say that “as mature members of a culture we have available the culturally produced semiotic resources of our societies,” and that out of the interest of creating meaning in the face of contingencies, sign-makers are producing signs “always as transformations of existing semiotic materials, therefore always in some way newly made” (pg. 12). However, despite the seemingly limitless ways of making meaning, signmakers are limited by convention, which is a “constantly present constraint on how far one might move in combining signifiers with signifieds” (pg. 12).
GIFs as performances of identity function under the two principles of social semiotics put forth by Kress and van Leeuwen (1996): “communication requires that participants make their messages maximally understandable in a particular context” (p. 13) and “representation requires that sign-makers choose forms for the expression of what they have in mind, forms which they see as most apt and plausible in the given context” (p. 13). Images co-opted from popular culture satisfy the requirements for “maximally understandable in a particular context” and “apt and plausible” because, as previously discussed in reference to Abrudan (2011), postmodern online identity is fleeting, and must be constructed quickly, so culturally significant people are often the subjects of Gawker’s GIFs.
For example, in response to the article “Screaming Kids, Feckless President Ruin Innocent Bee’s White House Visit” (Hongo, 2015), which discussed a reading by President Obama that was disturbed by bees, commenter Syphilitic Scalia Says responds with a scene from the show Arrested Development:
The context of the Gawker article is a silly story about bees. Syphilitic Scalia Says responds, creating a new semiotic meaning with an even more silly scene about bees. This is an example of the user performing an “insider” identity, responding with a cultural reference that is only funny to those who have seen the show. We can infer that Syphilitic Scalia Says posted under the expectation that other Gawker readers are familiar with Arrested Development, thus satisfying the “maximally understandable” principle of semiotics.
The multimodal nature of a GIF contributes to its meaning-making function. As discussed in the overview of Gawker’s site, the comment section of articles allows for text, hypermedia, static images, and videos, along with GIFs. All media objects are afforded the mode of the screen. Hypermedia is afforded the mode of interactivity, allowing for users to click a link and travel to another website. Static images are afforded the visual mode. GIFs operate with motion and visuals. Videos have the most modal affordances, with the interactivity of hypermedia, the visuals of static images, the motion of GIFs, and the added mode of sound.
As Kress (2004) states, text limits readers to a point of entry. The benefit of digital media, he says, is that “the reader’s interest determines where he or she wishes to enter the page” (p. 114). His text point-of-entry argument holds true for hypermedia and video as well. The user has little control over the destination of a hyperlink, and videos operate temporally. Static images and GIFs, however, have multiple “points of entry.” While there is a temporal element to GIFs, the duration of the movement is short and repetitive, so that it is still accessible. The moving image is a short, precisely selected clip, stripped of sound. The movement is not implied, such as in a static image, but explicit. Comment sections are meant to be skimmed, and GIFs do not interrupt the flow in the same way that a video would.
To return to GIFs as semiotic means for identity performance, the accessible point of entry and the explicit motion make it ideal for crafting a reaction. While static image may still be favored by many Gawker posters for its simplicity, in many cases a GIF is the more “apt” form to express what a sign-maker has in mind (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2006, pg. 33). For example, in response to the article “Rest in Peace, World’s Oldest Person” (Evans, 2015), about the death of the oldest person in the world, the below commenter responded with the following:
This is an instance of a GIF functioning as a playful identity imitation. The user, in his/her choice of an elderly person as the GIF subject, is referring back to the subject of the article. The temporal nature of the GIF is what contributes to the meaning of the GIF, and thus the semiotic nature of the user’s identity play. The GIF shows the woman falling of her own accord, and irrationally blaming President Obama as the punchline. It characterizes her as ridiculous. Below are still frames of the GIF.
Each frame does not adequately tell the story contained within the GIF. The first frame shows the woman lying on the ground with the text “Thanks, Obama.” Without the initial frames of the woman falling, the audience could erroneously believe that the woman is a victim of Obama. The second frame shows the woman in the process of falling, without the “Thanks, Obama” punchline. In this frame, the humor of the GIF is lost; she is rendered as a helpless, elderly woman who is suffering. It is the motion, and the unfolding story of the GIF that ultimately conveys the full meaning.
In the era of postmodern identity, where mass media is widely available for consumption, manipulation, and reproduction, GIFs have risen to popularity as a means of online discourse. This paper has examined GIFs that function as a performance of the commenter’s own identity, as a playful imitation of another’s identity, and as a way for a commenter to establish his/her identity as an insider to the community. This list of functions is by no means exhaustive; Gawker Media is only one context where GIFs are used as means of a semiotic identity performance. However, as a popular hybrid social media and news site, it is a representative example. GIFs multimodal affordances coupled with their multiple points of entry to the text allow users a more detailed meaning-making tool without the tradeoff of an unwieldy format.
Future research should focus on the function of GIFs in other platforms. Where there is human interaction, there is identity performance; a comparison of how GIFs are used to perform in different contexts would be useful to gaining insight to how people view themselves and each other in public discourse. As the GIF’s popularity continues to grow, I expect to see it on more GIF-friendly platforms in the future.
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