As I’ve written before, animated GIFs have re-emerged on the World Wide Web as a visual shorthand to express complicated emotions, ideas, and reactions. Their popularity has received a boost from the fact that they are relatively easy to create and small in file size, meaning they load quickly on almost any device. And, as one of my students observed, they’re kind of like the pictures in Harry Potter.
You’ll find animated GIFs throughout online discussion forums where they are often used to sum up a response to a discussion thread more quickly than a written message. They also are often deeply embedded in popular culture, which can also be a bonus.
One of the most popular online discussion forums is Reddit. Animated reaction GIFs are so popular on Reddit that there is a subReddit devoted to retiring GIFs that have been used so effectively that they will never again be used as a response in a more satisfying way.
ESL students can benefit from animated GIFs in many ways. One approach is for teachers to use them as conversation starters. Find something complicated that is expressed in a single GIF like this one and ask students what emotion is being expressed, what just happened to him, what might happen next, and to tell you about a time that they felt a similar emotion.
Animated GIFs also reference pop culture. And because of the are much shorter than a complete movie or TV show, they can be bite-sized points of entry into different touchstones of popular culture. For example, I recently watched Forrest Gump in an ESL classroom. Animated GIFs can serve as a potent reminder of the key scenes.
Animated GIFs are also a phenomenon of pop culture in their own right. Would memes like Tom Hanks as an animal have gone viral if the images were still? Perhaps. But animating these images doesn’t make them less interesting. Animated GIFs are a participatory form of pop culture – anyone can contribute to the virality of a meme by sharing it, retweeting it, or even creating their own take if they have simple Photoshop skills.
So, where to find them? Here are some good resources:
Any good search engine will turn them up. Including the words “animated” and “GIF” in your search terms will help.
Giphy.com is a search tool for animated GIFs.
ReactionGIFs.com is a website that collects and tags animated GIFs.
Reddit has an entire forum dedicated to animated reaction GIFs.
Tumblr is full of them.
My favorites are tagged “GIF” in Diigo.com, an online bookmarking service.
A final note: As you and your students venture out in search of animated GIFs, be aware that this corner of the World Wide Web, like so many others, can occasionally contain strong language and adult themes. If you work with younger students, you may want to preview these links before sharing them with your students. You are likely to encounter language that you may not want to share in your classroom.