Of gifs and the evolution of language
Writing (noun form). It's a weird thing — funny little shapes that, when strung together in the correct combinations, form meaningful concepts. String enough of those smaller forms together, and the complexity grows even further.
Yet as pervasive as writing may be, it's far from the only means of conveying information in a two-dimensional format. We can interpret far more data from an image because we're visually-driven creatures: often photos or illustrations can give us a sense of context, players, and action in just a tapestry of pixels.
Now, it seems, there's a new kid on a block.
If you don't know what gifs are, go to this article from The Week and check it out. As the story is, itself, told in gifs, I think you'll get the idea pretty quickly.
I'm not saying gifs are a new form of communication, because they've been around for years. But the ability to now search for gifs quickly and efficiently could have a tremendous impact on the frequency of their use — in the world of casual messaging, at the very least.
Before words were the data currency of the day, there were representative illustrations (I hesitate at saying "cave paintings," but yeah, I'm talking about Lascaux and such). Is it such a crazy move in evolution of language that we've essentially circled back around to this concept, now amping it up to the next dimensional level?
Neal Stephenson's novel The Diamond Age deals with the use of Mediaglyphics, moving symbols that quickly and efficiently convey their meaning through a brief animated movement. What if, instead of wasting time inculcating youngsters regarding the complex systems of written language as opposed to its counterpart, there was a simple way of communicating with children at younger age?
Don't scoff — if babies can learn assimilate language, why not simplified characters?
I see a pretty strong parallel between the linguistic advancement this change might herald and the method with which I learned about it. Let's look at the publication The Week: it's a news aggregator rather than a producer. Instead of wasting time and resources generating news and perfecting the business of its reporting, they're able to simply cherry-pick the best of ... well, the week.
This sort of move is essentially chopping the lowest rung off the publication's hierarchic ladder, turning what used to be an institutionalized position into a freelance feeding frenzy. Admittedly, they're republishing stories that initially appeared elsewhere, so it's not as though writers are necessarily actively competing for work with The Week, but they're still able to obtain the results one could find in that hyper-competitive atmosphere. On the most basic level, that's what's occurring.
Consider where you get your news in a given day. In smaller demographics it can still be business as usual, but these vast national and global news markets aren't running around out on the street, they're relying on local affiliates. Rather than holding the individual players completely responsible when a story is inaccurate, you share some of the blame with whoever brought you that story on the proverbial silver platter.
Instead of individuals competing for an evolutionary resource (knowledge/ information), niche exploiters have co-opted the system and are using it to pursue your attention — to subvert the predator into prey.
I'm digressing a little bit, but my main point is that there are tons of fascinating ramifications for this kind of cultural shift, and I'm curious as to whether anyone's tracking such information directly.
In order for the painting of a cow to have subjective meaning for an onlooker, that person has to have had some previous encounter with a cow (even in the abstract) that will put the image in perspective. Otherwise the viewer's subconscious is going to try to take that image and fit it into a subjective mold, really giving it meaning on a personal level, and taking away possibly vital abstract information.
The same is true with gifs. On a basic level, you have to understand the source material, whether that's knowing the individual text of the images or by interpreting what's going on in a situation. This is why people cross-applying those meaning to, say, their friend's Facebook post to voice a reaction, is profoundly interesting. People are using previously constructed texts to really convey a concise, visual expression of what they're thinking.
Changes in our tools lead inevitably to changes in the way we think. What will the new accessibility of the gif mean for human thinking? Could we actually create shortcuts in our own mental processing, allowing us to even think more accurately? Or will this be another movement like that ill-fated speech simplification, doomed to peter out in ignominious humiliation?
All in all, a really interesting movement in the evolution of communication, kids, and I myself will be watching to see where it goes.
Courier Publications reporter Bane Okholm received her M.F.A. in Screenwriting from U.C.L.A. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @MediaHeathen.