GIFs, or Graphics Interchange Format, have become a popular way to express emotions, reactions, and ideas on the internet. I know you’ve all experienced GIFs before. We are living in the meme generation, and some of the most fun ways to interact with others is through the sharing of memes via animated GIFs. Heck, popular smartphone keyboards have the ability to add a GIF to any conversation, that is how prolific they have become! GIFs are easy to create, share, and consume, and can add a touch of humor and personality to online conversations. However, as much as they can be fun and useful, GIFs are not without limitations, particularly when it comes to accessibility.
A few years ago I wanted to create a quick, easy-to-share graphic that explained a couple of short steps to my audience. I had several options: I could create a PDF document, or I could record a video. However, the steps were so few, and so quick that creating a video that would be less than 15 seconds didn’t make a ton of sense. A PDF document could have worked, but I wanted something faster that was a bit more visually illustrative. I landed on creating a GIF. They were easy to make, much more illustrative than typically boring PDF documents, and they were fun! It also doesn’t hurt that software to create GIFs can be had for free. It was settled, right?
Wrong! There was a problem: GIFs are not accessible.
The Problem with GIFs
One of the main issues with GIFs is that they rely solely on visual content to convey meaning. Unlike videos or audio files, GIFs do not have captions, transcripts, or alternative text, making them inaccessible to people with visual impairments or who rely on screen readers to access digital content. This means that any information or message conveyed through a GIF will not be understood by a significant portion of the online audience. Another worthwhile consideration about GIFs is that they can be triggering for some people. Some GIFs may contain flashing lights, strobe effects, or other visual elements that can cause seizures or other adverse reactions, particularly for people with epilepsy, or other neurological conditions. Without any warning or context, these GIFs can be not only inaccessible but also harmful to some individuals.
Despite these limitations, where are ways to use GIFs responsibly and inclusively. Here are some tips to consider:
- Use GIFs as a supplement, not a replacement, for text-based communication. If you want to convey a specific message or information, use words to express it clearly and concisely. Use GIFs to add some humor or emotion to your message, but make sure that the message itself is still understandable without the visual aid from the GIF.
- Provide context and warnings. If you must use a GIF that contains flashing lights or other potentially harmful elements, provide a warning beforehand, and make sure that the GIF is not on loop or is otherwise easily stoppable. Also, consider adding a description or explanation of the GIF’s content, particularly if it contains cultural references or inside jokes that may not be familiar to everyone.
- Advocate for accessibility. As more people become aware of the limitations of GIFs and other visual content, there is an opportunity to advocate for more accessible and inclusive online communication. If someone asks, or you see GIFs being used in a Canvas course, share this info!
We have an obligation to accessibility, and remembering these considerations will allow you to GIF and meme more responsibly. As well as potentially share some knowledge to someone who may not know this about GIFs.
GIFs can be fun and a very useful way to express feelings, an idea, or even instructions. However we must remember to be mindful of their limitations, as well as their potential harms. Being mindful of these limitations can help us ensure we are being more inclusive and accessible for our audiences. Learning about the limitations of my GIFs was very eye-opening for me, but thankfully now I am better prepared when creating and sharing GIFs again in the future.