“The question, O me! so sad, recurring — What good amid these, O me, O life?” — Walt Whitman
A viral Facebook game got me feeling pretty existential this week. Long has humankind cried out to the heavens, the universe, God, the gods, “Who am I?!” This week, many cried out to Facebook friends with the same lament. Well, almost. We beseeched our closest online friends and family to explain our existence in one GIF. I’m a seeker. I’m introspective.
So, I dove in. Friends and family, one GIF that describes me. Go.
GIF stands for “graphic interchange format,” a file type created in 1987 by a man who pronounces it incorrectly. This little powerhouse of modern communication is a short, ever-repeating, silent reel of video or animation. Humanity has lifted these moments from films, TV shows, commercials, home videos, political speeches, and more, creating vast libraries of short, looped moving pictures that are silent but can speak volumes.
One on hand, they’re just goofy video clips. On the other, each one is freighted with the meaning of its original art form and the context of its excerpting for GIF-ing. Then they’re layered over with written messages and implicit messages in conversation after conversation by each user in this vast public library in this giant Internet conversation humanity is having.
They can be cultural references and mash-ups and celebrations and allegories, sometimes all at once. The glorious versatility of the GIF! This is a language we did not possess just 10 years ago. The format existed, but we didn’t yet have the social media and smartphones by which to transmit it casually, even if we had an appropriate movie or TV reference at hand. Now, every phone has a GIF keyboard.
I found this Facebook experiment in public perception plumbing entertaining and strangely gratifying. I used to be quite sanguine, or at least laissez faire, about what Internet communication was doing to humanity. I’ve taken a turn in the last couple years, as online tools and community have seemed increasingly to incentivize and highlight the worst behavior we can muster. But I still love my Internets, and this seemed like a moment worth embracing.
The philosopher Seneca had many thoughts on friendship, one of which was: “One of the most beautiful qualities of friendship is to understand and to be understood.”
This strange, modern practice seemed a celebration of this idea— each GIF an attempt to tell one’s loved ones, “I understand you,” and ask for the same in return. The exercise was mostly light-hearted, sometimes lightly mocking, and occasionally really touching (especially when children taught their parents what a GIF was and where to find them, with all the predictable mishaps out there for all to see). I watched as everyone’s comment threads filled with varied, hilarious interpretations of them. Not each GIF was necessarily representative, but in my case, I thought the digital melange was pretty accurate.
GIFs of The Rock, someone guzzling Coca-Cola, eating bacon, eating Bojangles (frankly, there was a lot of junk food involved), vintage Wonder Woman, Regina George playing lacrosse and laying out opponents viciously, William Wallace, and My Little Pony’s Rainbow Dash challenging someone to a fight.
I’ll take it!
Then the question became, “Is this really an accurate representation of me or is it an accurate representation of the persona I broadcast?”
Was it gratifying because I was truly understood or gratifying because people were seeing what I wanted them to see? A concern about public perception— a need for an edited version of one’s true self— is nothing new in the history of humanity, but it is more consciously created and cultivated than ever before. As a public figure, and someone who came of age in the new world of social media, mine may well be more cultivated than others’ and more than I even realize.
Perhaps all the world’s a status and all the men and women merely posters.
But there was another side to this interaction. As the saying goes, it is perhaps even better to GIF than to receive. I found myself spending more time than is probably advisable searching for the perfectly nuanced GIF to encompass what was truly special about my friends— an enthusiastic red panda doing pull-ups, My Little Pony’s Fluttershy rolling her eyes, Julie Newmar as Catwoman judging the hell out of someone.
I then got to enjoy everyone else’s interpretations of my loved ones. For all the terrible social signaling the Internet can create, among my friends and family, this game seemed among the best Internet communities have to offer.
For instance, one of my friends was GIFed by another friend, who chose the “worry about yourself” girl. This is a GIF of an Indiana toddler, caught on a 2013 home video by her father as the family was headed out for an errand. The independent two-year-old was trying to buckle her own car seat, and when her father offered help, she repeatedly replied, “Worry about yourself!”
This GIF was perfect for my friend, which gave me a chuckle over her life philosophy and special brand of independence. It also made me think about her precocious kids and my precocious kids, who will grow up together, and how the little “worry about yourself” girl is now in elementary school, and life, and time, and identity, and whoa. The Internet is a strange and beautiful place sometimes.
For all the real-life interactions we rightly mourn being lost in these modern times, in that moment, there was a real feeling of connection with my friend, her friend, and our culture at large which has chosen this strange language, which had then connected me to a family in Indiana I’ve never met. In a childhood friend’s thread, a GIF of Clair Huxtable shaking her head wasn’t just that, but an acknowledgment of the shared specific culture in the specific time and place where we grew up. Nostalgia, history, understanding, belonging— not bad for a two-second loop.
I then had conversations with friends about what they noticed about their GIF collections. One mom of three was surprised and gratified she wasn’t overrun with only mom GIFs. I was mildly surprised so many of mine were so hard-assed, and that one sarcastic Katniss Everdeen GIF seemed so dead-on.
Examining those mismatches in self-perception and public perception with friends took the exercise beyond entertainment into intimacy. Philosophers have long grappled with life being short, repetitive, hard, and lonely. I was struck that these short, repetitive video clips, in isolation seemingly shallow, became so heartfelt, varied, and imbued with real human connection.
I suppose it could be read as just a bunch of self-indulgent navel-gazing, and there’s some of that. The Internet certainly excels at that, and I had originally intended to goof on this game as yet another trip down the post-modern, self-referential rabbit hole. But if I’m honest with myself it also seemed like a genuine grasping at age-old questions.
“What good amid these, O me, O life?” asked Walt Whitman. To paraphrase his answer to himself, “That you are here—that life exists and identity / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a GIF.”