ENGL706: Final Project

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:Furious_7_2_commentFurious_7_2

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.

Social Semiotics

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:

Bees_2_comment Bees_2

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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 6.14.05 AMScreen Shot 2015-05-05 at 6.13.54 AM

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.


Abrudan, E. (2011). The dynamics of postmodern identity. Journal of Media Research-Revista de Studii Media, (1 (9), 21-30.

Bird, S. E. (2011). Seeking the audience for news: Response, news talk, and everyday practices. The handbook of media audiences, 489-508.

Buck, S. (2012, October 19). “The History of Gif.” Mashable. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2012/10/19/animated-gif-history/

Clevenger, R.J. (2003). “Writing cyborgs: An ethnography of online composition” (Doctoral Dissertation). Dissertation Archive. Retrieved from http://aquila.usm.edu/theses_dissertations/1890. (Paper 1890).

Coen, J. (2014, August 13). “What Gawker Media is Doing About Our Rape Gif Problem.” Jezebel. Retrieved from http://jezebel.com/what-gawker-media-is-doing-about-our-rape-gif-problem-1620742504

Evans, D. (2015, April 6). “Rest In Peace, World’s Oldest Person.” Gawker. Retrieved from http://gawker.com/rest-in-peace-worlds-oldest-person-1696048799

Goffman, E. (1956). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Edinburgh, Scotland: University of Edinburgh.

Hongo, H. (2015, April 6). “Screaming Kids, Feckless President Ruin Innocent Bee’s White House Visit.” Gawker. Retrieved from http://gawker.com/screaming-kids-feckless-president-ruin-innocent-bees-w-1696113965

Jezebel Staff. (2014, August 18). “We Have a Rape Gif Problem and Gawker Media Won’t Do Anything About it.” Jezebel. Retrieved from http://jezebel.com/we-have-a-rape-gif-problem-and-gawker-media-wont-do-any-1619384265

Kress, G. (2004). Reading images: Multimodality, representation and new media. Information Design Journal, 12(2), 110-119.

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

Ram, A. (2012, December 6). “A Short History of the Gif, in 2 Minutes.” The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/265962/a-delightful-history-of-the-gif-in-2-minutes/

ENGL706 – Annotated Bibliography #3

Rowsell, J. (2014). “The mood is in the shot”: the challenge of moving-image texts to multimodality. Text & Talk, 34(3), 307-324.

In this article, Jennifer Roswell performs a case study of two filmmakers with vastly different techniques to “challenge perceptions of what modes can do and what they can evoke” (pg. 307). In her theoretical framework, she combines Kress’ discussion of ‘“epistemological commitments’ designed by sign-makers to craft image representations” (pg 309), and Merleau-Ponty’s work on “embodiment of the world and the co-existence of space and things” (pg 310). In short, Kress focuses on the semiotics of filmmaking, while Merleau-Ponty argues that meaning is influenced by the history of visuals, from which we cannot sever ourselves. The objects of study are Robin Benger and Tobias Wiegand: Benger is a documentary filmmaker who takes advantage of available modes in order to tell a story; Wiegand produces animated films, in which the story is pre-planned and modes are afforded by the technical process of creation. In both instances, the filmmakers rely heavily on modes to invoke emotion, however their approaches are quite different.

Roswell determines that three themes emerge from her interviews: “the role of the producer as rhetor; how producers materialize ideas, emotions, and values in a text; and modal affordances with their potential to emotionalize scenes in moving-image texts” (pg. 316). Benger views his role as a rhetor as a way to “nudge the world in a better direction” (pg. 316); Wiegand, on the other hand, believes his role is to explore “the ubiquitous use, enjoyment, understanding of immersive worlds” (pg. 317). In terms of how the filmmakers produce emotions in their texts, Benger takes advantage of the optics available to emphasize a mood, while Wiegand develops mood from a more general starting point, creating it through specifically crafted details added in the filmmaking process. Finally, Benger takes advantage of available modes to “create a cinematographica rhythm” (pg. 320), while Wiegand emotionalizes scenes through the process of creating and then combining various modes.

Roswell introduces ”an ontology for moving-image production” (pg. 322). It begins with Merleau-Ponty’s idea of “senses, felt connections, perceived worlds.” These senses are materialized through “modes, affordances, communication, representation” as discussed by Kress. Next, the sign-maker, based on “habitus, interest, audience,” makes decisions that inform their modal choices. Finally, the audience views the text, and meaning is created by a communication between “habitus, interest, felt connections.” Roswell concludes that cases like Benger and Wiegand “call into question [her] efforts at a logic of production” (pg. 323). While there is a basic ontology to filmmaking, there is a “profound, often ephemeral role” (pg 323) in the modal decisions of signmakers and the interpretation of audiences. Therefore, Roswell concludes that she is inconclusive: she wonders if it is even possible to create a grammar for the perceptual.

Roswell’s work is very useful in that it demonstrates the challenges that rhetors face when creating multimodal texts. Each text-creator is faced with a different set of modal affordances, and it is up to him/her to determine the best use of those modes based on the audience. This is relevant to my discussion on response GIFs because in order to understand why a certain GIF was used by an online commenter, we need to understand these factors at play. The commenter has seemingly endless possibilities. A GIF can be created out of the millions of film/videos that have been made, however the GIF-maker is limited to what is available online, and then further limited by the software available. And, for a less technically-inclined commenter without software access/knowledge, he/she is further limited to GIFs that have already been created by others. Even then, there is a further limitation on how much time a commenter has to make and/or browse GIFs, because there is a temporal element to online comment sections, where the most relevant commenters are also the quickest. Considering all of these modal affordances and restrictions is imperative to understanding the rhetorical workings at hand for reaction GIFs. Roswell’s conclusion of inconclusiveness is unsatisfying, but an important limitation to keep in mind when discussing multimodal texts.

ENGL706 – Infographic

For today’s pre-class exercise, I created an infographic showing the frequency of non-text media found in the comment sections of different Gawker Media sites. I used a very small sample—three articles per site, each with about 200 comments. The data was calculated manually, and the full data set can be seen below.Untitled Infographic

Data Sets:


Report: Seth Rogan Smoked So Much Weed His Office Had to be Renovated

total comments: 217
image: 4 (2%)
GIF: 1 (0.5%)
Link: 2 (1%)
Video: 0
Text: 209 (96%)
Other: 1 (1%)

Worldwide Octopus Uprising Continues With Aquarium Near-Escape

total comments: 188
Text: 156 (83%)
image: 15 (8%)
GIF: 2 (1%)
Link: 5 (2.5%)
Video: 10 (5%)
Other: 0

Police Find Thing You’d Expect in Container Marked “Not Weed”

total comments: 239
Text: 211 (88%)
image: 15 (6%)
GIF: 3 (1%)
Link: 8 (3%)
Video: 2 (1%)
Other: 0

Gawker Totals

total comments: 644
Text: 576 (89%)
image: 34 (5%)
GIF: 6 (1%)
Link: 15 (2%)
Video: 12 (2%)
Other: 1 (0%)


Boston Woman Uses Tinder to Find Someone to Shovel Out Her Car

total comments: 190
Text: 177 (93%)
image: 3 (1.5%)
GIF: 7 (4%)
Link: 3 (1.5%)
Video: 0
Other: 0

Pregnant Women Should Maybe Eat More Tuna, Says FDA

total comments: 200
Text: 176 (88%)
image: 10 (5%)
GIF: 4 (2%)
Link: 7 (3.5%)
Video: 3 (1.5%)
Other: 0

Karreuch Tran Is Pretty Excited to Be Done With New Daddy Chris Brown

total comments: 205
Text: 175 (85%)
image: 12 (6%)
GIF: 9 (4%)
Link: 4 (2%)
Video: 4 (2%)
Other: 1 (0.5%)

Jezebel Totals

total comments: 595
Text: 528 (89%)
image: 25 (4%)
GIF: 20 (3%)
Link: 14 (2%)
Video: 7 (1%)
Other: 1 (0%)


Report: LeSean McCoy “Not Happy” About Going to Buffalo

total comments: 196
Text: 181 (92%)
image: 3 (1.5%)
GIF: 2 (1%)
Link: 6 (3%)
Video: 2 (1%)
Other: 2 (1%)

J.J. Watt Is A Goddamn Lying Clowfraud

total comments: 242
Text: 203 (84%)
image: 34 (14%)
GIF: 1 (0.5%)
Link: 1 (0.5%)
Video: 2 (1%)
Other: 1 (0.5%)

Fight At Avalanche Game Features A Dude Trying to Punch A Lady

total comments: 227
Text: 219 (96.5%)
image: 3 (1%)
GIF: 2 (1%)
Link: 0
Video: 2 (1%)
Other: 1 (0.5%)

Deadspin Totals

total comments: 665
Text: 603 (90.5%)
image: 40 (6%)
GIF: 5 (0.5%)
Link: 7 (1%)
Video: 6 (1%)
Other: 4 (0.5%)

In retrospect my life would have been a lot easier recording all this in Excel tables


ENGL706 – Heuristic Development & Artifact Analysis


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.

ENGL 706 – Annotated Bibliography #2

Kress, G. (2004). Reading images: Multimodality, representation and new media. Information Design Journal, 12(2), 110-119.

In this article, Gunther Kress examines the shift that has taken place from the “mode of writing and medium of a book/page” to the “mode of image and medium of screen” (p. 110). He argues that the mode of how meanings are expressed has rhetorical consequences. He first argues that the material of the material of the mode has consequences for meaning. Nonverbal communication has shifted from words to images. He argues that words can be limiting: “only that for which there is a word can be brought into communication” (p. 112). The spatial relations between words written on a page and images shown on screen have important consequences. Readers only have one point of entry to a text; in order for it to be understood, it must be read chronologically and in order, as it is written out on the page. On a website, however, there are multiple points of entry, which allows the reader to design the text for themselves. As Kress states, “the reader’s interest determines where he or she wishes to enter the page” (p. 114). Also related to the mode of display, he argues that on screen, text is “subordinated to the logic of the image” (p. 116) and vice versa. He connects the rhetorical difference between the mode of writing versus the mode of the image to design. He states that because of the “multimodal landscape of communication” (p. 116), design is a central issue to communicating meaning. Design requires a person to consider environmental, audience, resources, constraints, and interests in shaping the argument. Because the page, with its central point of entry, is no longer the main mode of communication, communication has become fragmented and therefore, he argues, “rhetoric has become a major issue for design” (p. 119).

Kress’ discussion of multimodality and design choices is central to my research on GIFs in online discourse on news sites. He notes in this article that there is a shift where images are used with more frequency, “even in situations where previously writing would have been used” (112). This the question that I am interested in exploring—in what scenarios do commenters make the rhetorical decision to use a GIF in lieu of text? And why do news commenting sections make the decision to limit images in online conversation? The mode of the screen allows for many means of communication, yet major media sites such as New York Times and Washington Post make the rhetorical decision to only allow for text in their discussions. A small handful, like Gawker, allow a variety of means, such as links, images, and moving images. I think that GIFs are an interesting case because users have control over their “point of entry,” to borrow Kress’ terminology. The moving image is a short, precisely selected clip, often from a video, stripped of sound. The movement is not implied, but explicit. Take the below example of a popular Beyoncé reaction GIF versus a screenshot. Both have a humorous tone. Both carry the same cultural connotations that Beyoncé carries as a pop culture icon. The moving GIF is clear—she is saying “no,” and there is little wiggle room to interpret. The static image, on the other hand, is not so clear. Is she wagging her finger? Is she trying to catch someone’s attention? Is she saying “hold on a sec?” This difference is why GIFs are important to consider and can be very useful to contributing to discourse.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 3.26.36 PMnono

Source: http://www.reactiongifs.com/beyonce-2/


ENGL706 – Visual Argument Reflection

The visual argument I created is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek anti-advertisement for a fictional property company (inspired by real-life events of dealing with an incompetent leasing company). I strove to stay in line with Blair’s discussion on visual arguments in “The Possibility and Actuality of Visual Arguments.” I had difficulty determining how and if text should accompany the image. Blair defines visual arguments occurring “without the mediation of words or language in the literal sense” (p. 347), and states that “visual communication stands on its own feet” (p. 347). However, Blair also states that context matters, and many of the examples he provided of visual arguments were contextualized, surrounded by, and sometimes inclusive of text. The guide includes a lot of “how to” pins related to typical problems one might encounter while renting from “FPC”. I chose images that would make the reader uncomfortable—close up images of pests, distressed facial expressions, cluttered photos, disorganized spaces. As this was a “guide” I wanted my visuals to link to actual articles on advice, not just Google image results.

Overall the argument, as per Blair’s definition, was the “claim” that this company is bad and the “reason” is because it does not provide proper maintenance.

Laurie was able to read the argument I intended, except she interpreted it as extending to all property companies rather than just one. Summer read the DIY aspect of the argument, although she took a more positive view of people taking initiative of sprucing up their own spaces, rather than DIY out of necessity.

I agree with Blair that visual arguments, as he defines arguments, are possible but rare. Images are widely open to interpretation—as in this example, Laurie saw the DIY images as negative, and Summer saw it as positive. There are people who love DIY and enjoy the potential of “fixer-uppers,” so a crack in the wall may just look like fun potential rather than a headache.