GIFs are inherently goofy, but they serve a useful purpose, upping the emotional content of a blogpost or online article via a referential moving image. Usually taken from well-known movies and TV shows, they are especially beloved for listicles (articles that are really just lists of information or statements). When a GIF of Daenerys from "Game of Thrones" shouting "Where are my dragons?" shows up, many people will instantly understand the display of determined power that the short clip represents — GIFs have become a shorthand of sorts — the most modern proof of the old canard "a picture is worth 1,000 words." (The previous paragraph is for anyone who doesn't get why GIFs matter.)
The MIT Media Lab is interested in how exactly all this image-to-emotional understanding happens, and their innovative GIFGIF project is crowdsourcing what feeling — specifically — is conjured up when a certain visual is presented.
If you go to the website, you will see a statement like "Which better expresses happiness?" and below that are two GIFs. Users choose one or the other, and then move on to another set of images (most users vote on an average of 10 images, and many are returning to vote again and again, giving the researchers plenty of info).
Why is the world-famous lab studying what most people think of as, at best, entertainment and at worst, silly? Kevin Hu and Travis Rich, the pair behind the project at the Media Lab, explain: "We're hoping to answer some really interesting questions. Does a gif's emotional variance impact how it's received? (We have a hunch that emotional variance is why :) is pretty acceptable but ;) is typically an awkward mix of creepy/sexy/playful/pirate-y). Does a GIF's emotional content vary between cultures? For example, what is the best representation of happiness for Germans, compared to a Canadian's impression? And certainly let's not forget, we just want to build a better way to find gifs that capture that exact emotion you're looking for."
Because the Internet is a truly international world, it's the perfect place to get data from people — and for researchers to understand how this stuff changes from culture to culture (or even, from generation to generation). “We’re already seeing that votes vary across different cultures,” Rich told the Atlantic, “and looking at which GIFs are the most volatile — which ones have votes change the most based on country — could help us understand how emotions are interpreted across the world.”
All this research begs plenty of questions: Where do GIFs — or whatever the next iteration of visual shorthand — go from here? Could you create a whole new language based on images (or moving images sans words)? This would certainly be useful in an increasingly connected world where thousands of languages keep us from communicating cross-culturally. And could Hu's statement below become a reality?
“I want people to be able to put in a Shakespearean sonnet and get out a GIF set,” Hu said.
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