Memes speak louder than words

A picture can say a thousand words, but a gif can say 10,000 — that's why you can never have too many reaction images saved on your phone

08 July 2018 - 00:00
Memes such as Hassan Johnson's wow help drive points home.
Memes such as Hassan Johnson's wow help drive points home.
Image: Supplied

The gif turned 29 years old last month. While the pronunciation of this acronym (gif means "Graphics Interchange Format") is a touchy subject for some (it's actually pronounced "jif" as in "jiffy", but most of us just call it a "gif" like in "gift"), its power to communicate what words cannot is undeniable. 

A gif, for those who don't know, is a moving image that's not a video. The perfect gif is about five seconds long. A picture can say a thousand words, but a gif can say 10,000.

In the age of social media, one doesn't really need to have a way with words in order to tweet gems - they need to have a way with gifs and reaction images. The perfect combination of a sharp, short statement and an appropriate picture to drive the point home is the Twitter version of writing a Man Booker Prize-winning novel.

But those reaction pictures aren't just confined to our social media spaces: I often find myself using memes in WhatsApp and text conversations. Heck, even in e-mails. "Sometimes I take five minutes to respond to a message because I'm trying to find the perfect meme," says a writer friend.

When another friend of mine lost her phone, she was especially gutted because that meant she would need to start her reaction pictures folder from scratch. I have, at the time of going to print, 1,114 reaction pictures saved on my mobile - more pictures than I have of my child.

Some of the most popular memes and gifs of recent times include the Blinking White Guy gif (still one of the best reactions to have ever graced the internet), reaction pictures featuring a kid named Gavin (the gift that keeps on giving - there's a Gavin reaction for every situation you can think of), a gif of Oprah throwing her hands up as if to say "duh", gifs featuring controversial American talk show host Wendy Williams and gifs from the US version of The Office.

Locally, Bonang video clips are popularly used in tweets. Politicians also make some of the best reaction pictures - Blade Nzimande, Fikile Mbalula, Julius Malema and Mbuyiseni Ndlozi are a few names whose faces are used to punctuate tweets.

When I asked people on Twitter how many reaction pictures they have on their phones, user @SuburbanZulu replied: "I have enough. Thanks. Enjoy your day." This response was accompanied by a gif of Bathabile Dlamini telling journalists: "Please! Stop! Harassing! Me!"


While memes have - for some of us at least - made our social media experience even better, there's the often ignored issue of the morality and ethics surrounding gifs and reaction pictures.

For instance, should the circumstances under which a reaction was recorded be taken into account before the image is used? Some popular local reaction pictures are of Thandi Maqubela fainting in court (often used to show shock), Oscar Pistorius snotty crying (to represent being hurt) and Sindisiwe Manqele hiding behind a scarf and shades (popularly used to represent shame or embarrassment).

Considering that these images were taken when all three of these people were on trial for murder, is it appropriate to use them in a frivolous or humorous situation? Sometimes images that aren't so serious can be used in a context that makes them serious - and to greater effect than if the accompanying memes were serious.

An example would be a recent viral tweet featuring pictures of soccer superstar Neymar playing up an injury during a match (on the ground, howling in pain). The tweet that accompanied those images? "Israeli soldiers when a Palestinian kid throws a rock at their tank." Yikes.

Commentary using humour is nothing new - except now we have reaction pictures to help us drive a point home.