Guest blog: What GIFs do in online chat

In the most recent issue of the journal, Jackson Tolins and Patrawat Samermit, both of the University of California, Santa Cruz, have a fascinating article about how people use animated clips (GIFs) in their online chat. They’ve kindly agreed to contribute this guest blog to explain more about their research, and what sorts of issues it uncovered.


Jackson Tolins


Patrawat Samermit

As conversation analysts, we take as a fundamental principle that the primordial locus of language use is in face-to-face spontaneous interaction. This format, however, is becoming less and less common as modern communication technologies provide new means of interacting with each other, such as instant and text messaging. These new formats provide opportunity and allow us to translate theories developed in the analysis of face-to-face conversation to new domains, and also contain novel practices of talk in interaction that go beyond what has been previously accounted for. In our recent paper, we present an analysis of one such development in a common computer-mediated communication (CMC) format: the text-messaged conversation (also known as SMS).

Gifs and what they do

GIFs, looped animation files, have become a mainstay across many new mediums. Online, they have become integral to forum-based communities and image-sharing sites such as tumblr. Websites such as Jezebel have weekly ‘GIF parties’ in which new GIFs are presented and shared, and other sites are completely dedicated to their dissemination, including Reddit’s Reaction GIFs forum. GIFs present short instances of video, looped for continuous play, commonly taken from other media such as movies, television, and online video. Frequently, these images display bodily actions, human or otherwise, and can present a wide range of emotive/affective displays, such as exasperation:









Or joy:







In our analysis of a small corpus of GIF use, collected from the local University’s students, we found two main functions of GIFs in text message conversations. The first, similar to the online proliferation of the ‘reaction GIF,’ was as a form of listener response, as in:


A stand-alone form of listener response

(Taken from Tolins & Samermit, 2016)

The second use of GIFs was as a means to visually present some aspect of bit of talk. In this way the GIFs act as a form of co-speech demonstration in a multimodal message, as in:

R: i am so tired what is even happening, why do i suddenly have so much work


F: Ha same also half of my RAs couldn’t make my weekly meeting 😦

Distinct sequential contexts

These two different uses of GIFs appear in distinct sequential contexts, one as a stand- alone contribution in response to another’s prior text and the other immediately following some bit of text in a composite message. Beyond these differences, there are also a number of general features to GIFs in text messaging. For example, all but a single instance in our collection were produced without any form of marking or verbal introduction, perhaps indicating how the embodied enactments are utilized as a rich semiotic resource for communication.

Unlike any other form – a type of quotation

The GIFs in text-messaged conversation represent the inclusion of a previously unavailable communicative modality within the SMS format. The vast majority of GIFs portray embodied actions including gestures, facial expressions, and physical actions. We present an analysis of their use as a type of quotation: The texters rely on the previously produced actions of others as stand-ins for their own communicative behaviors, and are taken by interlocutors not as replications but as displays for which the texter, not the individual depicted, is socially responsible.

As technology-mediated communication platforms continue to develop and spread in use, the practices by which we make meaning and coordinate talk together are changing and developing as well. Our examination of GIFs as embodied enactments is hopefully one of many to come that explore the interactive developments provided by technological affordances – and we are so excited to see what lies ahead!


Tolins, J., & Samermit, P. (2016). GIFs as Embodied Enactments in Text-Mediated Conversation. Research on Language and Social Interaction49(2), 75-91.