The GIF that Keeps on GIFing: GIF Culture and Stigma-Reduction

Note to those who may be sensitive to flashing content. The post below contains GIFs, which are moving images that can sometimes trigger sensitivity to flashing content.

The MASCLab sponsored a recent talk called “Never Gonna GIF You Up: Analyzing the Cultural Significance of the Animated GIF” given by Drs. Kate Miltner and Tim Highfield earlier this semester. As an avid sender and receiver of GIFs, I happily attended the talk and, afterwards, began seeing GIFs from a new perspective. I couldn’t stop thinking about the radical potential of GIFs, and thus, the GIF-making workshop was born!

Now let’s back up for a second. The Graphics Interchange Format, known as GIF, is a file type that allows for short, looping series of images or video, either extracted from cultural artifacts like films and television or made with user-generated content. With the rise of, a website dedicated to collecting and sharing GIFs, and other in-app GIF functionality, like Facebook chat, GIFs have been circulating far and wide. As I learned from the “Never Gonna GIF You Up” talk, a GIF can serve many different functions communicatively (reactionary, informative, metaphorical), and the sharing of a GIF is intentional, usually chosen for its perceived greater impact in a conversation as compared to the use of a static meme or still image.

Image credit: Don’t tell me to smile. Retrieved from

The GIF lends itself to expressing affect via the popular genre of reactionary and emotive GIFs. These GIFs are used to visually represent emotional states, usually of the person sending them. From there, I am interested in whether GIFs can be an effective tool to dispel and challenge conventionally held beliefs about mental health through consciousness-raising. The GIFs’ shareability combined with what can only be described as the visceral emotional quality of reactionary GIFs creates an opportunity to show how we feel from moment to moment. This practice converges on mindfulness and self-disclosure. For example, consider the popular GIF below showing Tobias Funke from the tv show, Arrested Development, sobbing in the shower:

 sad crying arrested development tobias funke descriptive noise GIF

Tobias Funke sobbing in the shower. Retrieved from

The simple act of expressing emotion in GIF form can infuse conversations with more of an embodied flavor. I would argue that the humor behind and hyperbolic use of the reactionary GIFs tend to heighten the silliness and lower discomfort leading to greater emotional disclosure. For instance, consider the difference between sharing a GIF of yourself sobbing in the shower versus referencing a scene, like above, from popular culture to communicate that same feeling. The idea of GIFifying yourself sobbing in the shower probably turned your stomach a little. Luckily, Tobias Funke’s sobbing can stand in for our own. That process of externalization is worth investigating. As such, it would seem that GIFs are very powerful tools for disclosing and dealing with our own emotions, both positive and negative.

The GIF form offers something unique. Viewing this same four second scene on is just not the same. Youtube user, Bob Rogers writes, “There needs to be a 10 hour version of this….” (2014) to which noodletom responds, “I WAS JUST THINKING THAT. OMF YESS” (2014). Similarly, Alice Izzard comments, “I put this on loop whenever I feel like crying and it cheers me up instantly. I have no idea why” (2016). It is clear that something about this clip resonates for many people, and the GIF version of this scene delivers what the people want. It could loop for ten hours straight, or indefinitely, for that matter. For Alice, seeing her own emotions reflected back to her leads to some emotional resolution. I don’t think she’s the only one. Herein lies the radical potential of GIFs.

Between 35 and 50 percent of people living with mental illness in high-income countries never receive the care they need (World Health Organization, 2015). There are many reasons for this disparity in need and care received: insurance gatekeeping, for one, and pervasive stigma, for another. Stigma is created and maintained in a bidirectional feedback loop. The social climate produces stigma and is also produced by stigma. Internalizing negative and inaccurate beliefs about mental illness can have devastating effects given that even those who do have adequate health care coverage may not ever get the help they need, often due to the stigmatized status of mental illness.

The MASCLab GIF-making workshop enters here: the far-reaching effects of stigma made it a broad topic for contemplation and discussion last week. We focused on brainstorming ways that GIFs can be used to help change the conversation surrounding different stigmatized social issues. In fact, stigma not only affects how mental illness is treated but also how racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, among other important issues, remain pervasive in the US. The most prevalent techniques we identified in a sampling of stigma-reducing GIFs were humor, modeling acceptance, use of cognitive dissonance as critique, use of personal testimony or user-generated content, repurposing iconic imagery from popular culture to create or highlight a new message, and the use of art and animation. These strategies created feelings of levity, empathy, thoughtfulness, outrage, shock, and the list goes on.

In addition to looking at the infrastructure of GIFs, the workshop discussion highlighted a number of issues important to our lab members. For instance, we lamented how the expectations of women, as they age, can be isolating, shaming, and limiting and got hungry discussing contentious pizza preferences all the way to issues surrounding racial profiling. Viewing the, now, iconic GIF of a young black guy capturing, on camera, a convenience store employee following him around the store, arranging condiments, fluffing bags of chips, and peering around the aisle in a not so subtle fashion speaks volumes on the lived experience of racism. At one point he even catches the surprise on the woman’s face when she realizes he knows what she’s doing and is recording her following him around the store.

 racism GIF

Racial profiling. Retrieved from:

The above GIF shows the format’s potential to project the experiences of racism onto a national and international screen, to then be taken up and shared. Consciousness-raising is an effective means of promoting change, and this GIF achieves that all under 6 seconds. What else, as important as addressing the experience of racism, can be accomplished in so little time? After our discussion, we were inspired and set to work making our own stigma-reducing GIFs.

Our GIFs are now part of the GIPHY lexicon! We are in good company since GIPHY reported over a billion GIFs sent by 100 million users per day (Giphy adds .GIFs, 2016). That’s a lot of GIFs! Harnessing that momentum for anti-stigma messaging has the potential to positively impact social change. Actually, it already is: GIPHY, itself, launched a library project uploading 2,000 new GIFs to teach common American Sign Language (ASL) words such as shrimp, ROFL, and vlog. As the third most spoken language in the US, GIPHY’s project to teach ASL increases recognition and acceptance of the deaf community in a wide context. This is only one of the many ways in which GIFs are being utilized for social change.

Sign with Robert sign language asl deaf american sign language GIF

“Suffering” in ASL. Retrieved from

We, at the MASCLab, invite you to use the How to Make Gifs  Guide to create your own stigma-reducing GIF. Upload and tweet them @masclabtc on Twitter. We would love to see them!


Alice Izzard. (2016). Re: tobias crying in the shower [Video file]. Retrieved from

Bob Rogers. (2014). Re: tobias crying in the shower [Video file]. Retrieved from

Giphy Adds .Gifs For Social Good. (March 21, 2016). Retrieved October 09, 2017, from

Miltner, K. M., & Highfield, T. (2017). Never Gonna GIF You Up: Analyzing the Cultural Significance of the Animated GIF. Social Media Society, 3(3), 1-11. doi:

noodletom. (2014). Re: tobias crying in the shower [Video file]. Retrieved from

STATE OF THE GIF: GIPHY 2016 – ART marketing (2016, October 26). Retrieved October 09, 2017, from

World Health Organization (2017), “Mental disorders”, available at: (accessed October 9, 2017).

One thought on “The GIF that Keeps on GIFing: GIF Culture and Stigma-Reduction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s