The Linguistic Morphology of Reaction GIFs
GIF by Reaction GIFs

When we turn to the person sitting next to us and say something, it’s not particularly difficult to convey our emotional intent. We have an entire arsenal of non-verbal tools at our disposal when we communicate in person: we can gesticulate, frown, shrug, shake our heads, even face-palm. But what about the instances when we are limited to words on a screen? According to linguist Chi Luu, “email, instant messaging and other online forums for speech have made the efficient communication of emotion and social cues necessary,” and this is where the internet famous face-palm comes into play. In a recent column for JSTOR Daily, Luu explored the rise of so-called “reaction GIFs,” and their place in our internet vernacular:

The evolution from simple punctuation-based emoticons to more complex reaction gifs from internet memes shows how more nuanced expressions are being stylized and conveyed in online culture. Emoticons in parallel have themselves developed some complexity, influenced by their Japanese counterparts. These are known as kaomojis, which use combinations that include katakana characters, such as the  shrug ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  and the ever popular table flip (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ . Emoticons that are frequently used have been developed into image versions of their punctuation selves (also known as emoji) and are so popular with internet users an emoji-only messenger is now available for those who like their communication short and sweet.

From visual emojis depicting simple emotional states, it’s a short step to the more dynamic emotion or reaction gifs, used by certain internet subcultures to respond or react in playful ways to an online discussion. These are gif images, often originating from internet memes, that depict elements of body language that can be too complex for an emoticon to describe. Essentially, it’s an innovative way for speakers to convey a sense of gesture on the internet.

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