The future of communication is the .gif

Text messaging is, to put it lightly, an imperfect form of communication. Messaging apps like WhatsApp, Line, and Facebook’s Messenger have all tried to enhance the text messaging experience by offering different methods of chat, like video chat, and incorporating images to text, like emojis and animations. WeChat—China’s social media app that boasts 549 million users per month—has arguably done the best job at improving chat, seeing as the average Chinese mobile phone user now sends fewer than two text messages a day. Josh Horwitz at Quartz wrote about WeChat’s simple voice messaging and how that has majorly changed the way mainland Chinese communicate on mobile. But it’s a simpler innovation that has really captured the imagination of me and many others: breaking the internet GIF free from the confines of forums and Facebook and bringing it to our mobile chats.

GIFs can be joyous emotional shorthand 

Incorporating GIFs into chat has made communicating over WeChat clearer, more engrossing, and just plain fun. GIFs can be joyous emotional shorthand: in the absence of visual cues, we facepalm, give thumbs up, and applaud each other through GIFs. They may go by a different name, but WeChat’s Stickers (???? in Chinese, or “animated expressions”) are still essentially animated GIFs, compressed for easy use in WeChat. The source material for the vast majority of these Stickers is preexisting Internet GIFs, so you see a lot of familiar GIFs when you’re exchanging Stickers in a WeChat conversation. But one thing makes the Stickers experience vastly different from the GIF experience: you can’t search for a Sticker. With Stickers, you have to wait for them to come to you. Google has made finding a GIF to suit your needs a breeze: even if you don’t know exactly which GIF you’re looking for, all you need to do is search an approximation of what you want, type “gif” at the end of your query, and behold. Seriously, type some nonsense like “feeling fancy about hair gif” and marvel at your many options. And while this is absolutely awesome and the database of GIFs grows ever-larger, it’s a different kind of fun than playing Stickers. On WeChat it’s not so simple to find whatever you want, since there’s no database where all Stickers are tagged, search-optimized and readily available. WeChat users can only acquire new Stickers when they encounter them in conversation: if you are looking for Exasperated Speechless Neil DeGrasse Tyson, he can’t be found; only earned by exasperating someone that already has that particular Sticker in her collection and sends it to you to show just how exasperating you are. WeChat users must rely on this type of transaction to build their collection.

The fact that you can only get a Sticker from someone else differentiates Sticker-collecting from the on-demand nature of so much modern media, like the standard GIF, which can easily be pulled from a Google search. Stickers unexpectedly find a corollary in an old school activity: trading cards. Your Sticker collection grows gradually, much like a deck of cards in Magic: The Gathering or a collection of baseball cards. Like trading cards, you have to start somewhere, and WeChat offers Sticker “starter packs” in the form of cute, G-rated Stickers featuring original characters, such as the adorable Tuzki the Rabbit, the will-they-won’t-they pair of Horse and Frog, and the awful stereotypical large sassy black woman, Queenie, all of which are available through in-app downloads.  You can usually tell a new WeChat user by their heavy use of these Sticker packs or other downloadable Sticker pack.

To expand your Sticker collection and take your game to the next level, though, you’ve got to earn it. While you can just go out and buy packs of trading cards, you can only find and collect new Stickers when they’re sent to you in the middle of a conversation. Your conversations—your very words—have the potential to unlock new, unexpected Stickers. You don’t know a certain Sticker exists until you encounter it in the wild—like that first time a wild Abra appeared in the tall grass along Route 24—or it’s bestowed upon you, like your older brother giving you a legendary Volrath the Fallen. I’m still on the lookout for Self-High-Fiving Tina Fey, though as much as I want her in my collection, I wouldn’t dare to ask someone to send her to me. That would break the game.

The revelation of a new Sticker is as pleasing as a bon mot in conversation—the perfect phrase at the perfect time. For example, in a group chat with some friends, one of us was whining about something inconsequential, when someone responded with this:

Not only did he nail it, but I appreciated how much he must have loved finding the perfect moment to spring this image. And I can’t imagine a more good-natured way to be told to stop whining.

I long-pressed the looping Sticker and saved it to my collection, overcome with a glee that should be familiar to anyone who has engaged in collecting of any sort. But unlike cards and other collectibles, Stickers do not exist in their own fabricated, rule-laden arena (like Magic cards) and aren’t meant to be enjoyed in and of themselves or for their monetary value (like sports cards): each new Sticker is an expressive tool, a Level-Up in your ability to express nuance and emotion. But not all new Stickers are that big of an upgrade: some Stickers, like the multitudinous “thumbs up” or “party hard” variety Stickers, are a dime a dozen, while others that can convey complex emotions really do become a significant complement to your ability to communicate. And it seems like the potential for using GIFs in messaging apps is not lost on WeChat’s competitors.

Facebook—which is making a habit of emulating WeChat’s better features—has partnered with GIF database and proliferator of GIF joy GIPHY to support GIF-usage in chat. But, for two main reasons, I doubt their product will have the same game-like qualities as Stickers.

each new Sticker is an expressive tool 

The first is that it’s not cooked into the app. You have to download another app—the GIPHY for Messenger app—to have access to GIPHY’s GIF library. That means you have to opt in to using GIFs in Messenger, so naturally not all users of Messenger are playing on the same field, and that’s one of the keys to the success of Stickers: everyone is playing. The other issue is seemingly a plus: Facebook and Giphy will offer a rich, diverse, search-optimized GIF library for everyone, right off the bat. This plenitude and ease of use counts against GIPHY and Messenger. In offering users the world of GIFs on a platter, Facebook eliminates the joy of discovering and collecting. Facebook Messenger is by all accounts a great app, but the attitude that more accessibility and more options—an attitude that arguably underpins capitalist consumer culture in general—means fewer moments of surprise and joy.

Spotify, YouTube, and Netflix all give us what we want when we want it. We’re no longer plagued by the question of “How can I find it?” as much as we’re occupied with trying to figure out “What am I even looking for?” It’s a problem that has been most popularly explored by economist Barry Schwartz in various media forms, but most thoroughly in his book The Paradox of Choice. According to Schwartz, more choices don’t necessarily make us better consumers and definitely don’t make us happier people; in fact, more choices often depress us. Schwartz’s work will resonate with anyone who has agonized over what to order at a restaurant with a five-page menu or decided to just deal with their shitty laptop because the prospect of finding the perfect replacement was too overwhelming.

In being limited in number, WeChat Stickers skirt the paradox of choice. But more significantly, Stickers ask for patience and reward us with surprise. We don’t know when we’ll encounter a new Sticker, and we can’t simply search to acquire the one we desperately want. Each user’s Sticker collection is unique, built over time through interactions with friends. Perhaps you have memorable associations with how you acquired certain Stickers. Perhaps you’re still looking for a certain Sticker. I finally found Self-High-Fiving Tina Fey today and I feel, without a shred of sarcasm, that today is an objectively better day than yesterday.

But tomorrow? I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow WeChat adds a “find Sticker” search function and life gets a little more mundane. I’m going to wager that WeChat was not aiming to recapture the lost pleasure of collecting. There is almost certainly a team of developers that considers this current iteration of GIF integration suboptimal and is working on a Sticker-search function akin to Facebook Messenger’s GIPHY support. If so, they’ve got a big task ahead of them, due partly to the many NSFW GIFs that circulate on WeChat and the Chinese government’s strict ban on pornography. If there is a Sticker library in the works, it’s impossible to say what its final form would be, but my guess is that we’ll be spending a lot more time searching for Stickers and a lot less time enjoying them.