(This is a big jumbled mess of thoughts that I may not fully believe come an hour from now. It’s just easier to type it out and come back to it later. Expect lots of edits.)
Edit: changed some stuff, added some ideas. Also: if you have comments, suggestions, reactions, please send them my way.
Emotion, Reaction gifs, George Orwell and the Feels.
I’ve been obsessing over the evolution of gif language on Tumblr lately.
In ancient pre-Tumblr times (aka Livejournal), if we wanted to talk about how something in our lives made us feel, we’d use words and sentences and paragraphs in order to say “I saw this thing and it made me so happy” or “I had this thing happen and it made me so sad.” If we were sophisticated, we’d accompany that post with a mood icon or an emoticon.
Being the advanced society I imagine Tumblr to be, we no longer have to use sentences and emoticons. We’ve figured out how to express ourselves by finding moments within common points of culture (movies, tv, YouTube videos) and posting that moment, that emotion, as a single 500kb reaction gif.
This is happy.
This is sad.
This is angry.
This is overwhelmed with undisclosed emotion.
Remember that last one. We will come back to it later.
All of this, to me, is absolutely incredible. Many of these emotions are recognized universally, forming a visual shorthand that can be used in place of entire paragraphs and can communicate ideas across languages and cultures.
While the emotions above are simple ones, there are other reaction gifs that convey more compound ideas like ‘i have conflicting emotions’ or ‘i am overwhelmed with emotion’ or ‘i can’t even deal with the emotions I am feeling right now.’
(Everything above this point, btw, is the basis of the talk I gave at MoMA last year about GIF culture.)
And while people still use gifs in order to convey a particular emotion, it soon became fashionable to use a gif to express not the particular emotion you felt but to instead acknowledge the presence of emotion in general.
Much of this is ironic and intentionally comedic. But a long examination of posts on various reaction tags leads me to believe that some people are using these gifs with complete sincerity — they are upset to be beset with “feelings”. It’s almost as if they were ashamed that they allowed something, anything, even art, television, or literature, to give them an emotional reaction. It’s like a self-imposed conditioned form of You X, You Lose.
This wouldn’t be an issue except that, well, you’re supposed to let things “get” to you. That is often the point of art and culture. I watch Sherlock in order to feel joy, fear, frustration, and then elation. Browsing the “#Steven Moffat is a troll" tag, however, it’s sometimes hard to discern who is using the tag ironically and who actually thinks that Steven Moffat is doing them harm. (Take it from someone who’s just a little bit on the inside: he isn’t. This is just what good television is supposed to feel like.)
Anyway, back to the emotions — when these reaction gifs crossed over from image form to tag form, they were expressed as the tags #i just have a lot of feelings and #my emotions. This was later whittled down to the more efficient #all my feels and eventually reduced even further to a single word representing all emotion, #feels.
It became entirely possible for two people to watch the same exact episode of, say, Doctor Who, post about their #feels and have it mean two entirely different things.
If they happened to spell out exactly what their #feels were, or if perhaps they posted other contextual tags like #do not want, that context may have indicated the intention of the use of the word but not always. Different people have different relationships with the same exact emotions. I like it when a character makes me sad. (It’s like ‘happy’ for deep people.) Other people are horrified at the prospect of feeling sad. The language may seem clear but the effect is muddy.
If a group of people all agree that they are full of #feels and one person takes that as an endorsement and justification to go off and do something stupid, like, say, sending the creator of your favorite tv show death threats over Twitter… well, maybe those #feels need to be explored and explained more. It’s an easy way to make one feel overwhelmed with undisclosed emotion.
I can’t help but look at all of this and see a parallel to George Orwell’s concept of ‘Newspeak’. Remember the fictional language from the novel 1984? That was a version of English where vocabulary and language was reduced for the purpose of narrowing the range of accepted thought.
But while I think the patterns look the same, my forecast is a lot different. The move from emotions to feels is not a sign of the dumbing down of society but rather the current position of a language that expands and contracts depending on the forces acting upon it.
Eventually, something will come in to widen the paradigm of expressive gifs again. When it happens, I hope we welcome it with open arms.