Exploring the Emotion of GIFs

College students are no strangers to GIFs: from Buzzfeed articles to text messages, these funny little pictures add entertainment daily. But what if GIFs could do more than generate a few laughs?

Graduate students Travis Rich and Kevin Hu at MIT plan to find out through GIFGIF, a website they developed that aims to quantify the emotions related to animated GIFs. Though started as a side project to recognize perceptional patterns when people see a word and a GIF, the creators realized that GIFGIF had potential for more.

Image courtesy of GifGif

Image courtesy of GifGif

“Our goal is to create a tool that lets people explore the world of GIFs by the emotions they evoke,” say Rich and Hu.

Rich and Hu based GIFGIF off the platform of another MIT Media Lab project called Place Pulse. This program helps researchers quantify people’s emotions when looking at pictures of different cities, like asking how “unsafe” people felt when showed images of Rio de Janeiro.

The two hope to develop a database that serves as a “text-to-GIF” website. This could be used for anything from finding the perfect GIF to send to a friend who has had a bad day to translating a passage from The Prince into GIFs. They also plan to create an open API for researchers to use for their own projects.

“Finding the right GIF is an enormous barrier, especially for those from different cultures or generations,” the developers said to Boston, “We want to contribute to the lowering of those barriers, acting as a dictionary between words and GIFs.”

The “emotional GIF analysis” also points to cultural differences: votes for GIFs vary from country to country, and the program could potentially help researchers “understand how emotions are interpreted across the world.” Although emotions like happiness are generally agreed upon, more complex emotions like relief vary across cultures.

Despite the cultural variation, GIFGIF may be providing practical applications in language skills. One ESL teacher is already using the site to help students learn words for different emotions, a skill that is often difficult to teach.

The website is accessible to anyone. Upon entering the site, GIFGIF may asks the question, “Which better expresses fear?” along with a GIF of Shelley Duvall watching Jack Nicholson break through a door in The Shining and a photo of Ryan Gosling giving a sly smile. After choosing a GIF or clicking “neither,” users move on to the next one. The database now has over 4,400 images.

Photo courtesy of GifGif

Photo courtesy of GifGif

Since its launch on March 3, an average of 15,000 users per day log on to GIFGIF and vote about ten times per visit. These numbers are increasing, which is good news for Rich and Hu as they continue developing GIFGIF.

Although GIFGIF is a nascent program, Rich says “GIF-speak” is here to stay. “They’re still a big part of culture and [are] going to remain that way for some time,” he says. “We hope the tool we’re building will be useful in that future.”

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