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Say It with a GIF: A Discussion on Animated Book Reviews

2014 January 21
by Diane Colson
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Last November, Salon.com published an article by Laura Miller entitled GIFs, memes and liveblogs; the controversial new language of book reviewing.  Miller explores the customer review phenomena as it applies to books on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com. Although both web sites have reviewer guidelines, amateur book reviewers have a considerable amount of freedom to express their opinions to an international audience. Hub bloggers Carla Land, Becky O’Neil, and I share our reactions to the brave and sometimes brutal new world of customer book reviews.

What is it that drew you to this topic?

Carla: What drew me to this topic was that I think, as a blogger, that it takes a certain creative element to be able to combine words and pictures together to convey an idea. I know as librarians and educators we all love the written word, but there’s something about Jean-Luc Picard with his head in his hands that says to me, “This is an epic fail” better than actually saying “This is an epic fail.” It isn’t always flippant- sometimes it can be a very sweet or poignant image that says more than words can. The whole concept intrigues me!

Diane: Agreed! Images are so effective at capturing attention, and technology has made them increasingly available. In her Salon article, Miller writes, “Perhaps, though, what’s unsettling about even the most inventive use of GIFs and images is the way they evoke emotion and subjectivity rather than ideas and analysis.” One might argue that emotion and subjectivity have always been a part of reader response, and that words traditionally limit such responses.

Becky: I was drawn to the topic because I find visual culture very interesting, and have definitely noticed the use of GIFs on Goodreads especially, but would never expect that kind of review to become the way books are reviewed. Maybe I’m old-school that way! I see GIFs used to great comedic effect in a “picture is worth a thousand words” kind of way (the Capt. Picard facepalm is a perfect example).

 

What do you think of using GIFs and other images in book reviews?

Carla: Usually I’m okay with images being used- unless I’m on my phone and they won’t load and then I get aggravated! But I’ve spent just as much time looking for the right image as I have the right words, and I think that in certain instances, like blogs and Goodreads, and other places where people can post reviews online, an image is perfectly acceptable. I was working on my personal blog last month and my husband commented that it was taking me a while… the thing that was taking time was finding the right pictures to go along with my words. The latter came easily, but the pictures did not and I ended up spending a lot more time on Pinterest than I had intended (isn’t that always the way?). I really think that using visual aids in a review adds to the process of creation as much as it does in a blog- and aren’t some of these online reviews blogs anyway?

Becky hit on a key point during our discussion- it may date us later to use gifs and memes, but it makes things accessible and relevant NOW. Honestly, I’m not looking at reviews of books five, ten years down the line to see if I want to buy it for my collection or not. I’m looking NOW. And teens are looking NOW, too. If a book has good reviews whether it has pictures or not then it’s likely to stick around for a while and get good word of mouth. I think teen books get dated really quickly, too- not so much the fantasy and historical fictions, but books that I couldn’t keep on the shelf three years ago are now sitting there gathering dust. Maybe the review looking dated would be a good thing because it may clue you in that the book itself is dated? It could become an important tool in the future.

Diane: Count me in as another blogger who spends way too much time looking for just the right image. It’s especially exciting when looking back at flyers I created earlier in my librarian career, when terms such as “copy,” “cut,” and “paste” literally involved tracing paper, scissors, and glue. I never dreamed we would ever be able to manipulate video in such creative ways. I don’t see this mode of expression going away. It’s just too much fun to make and view. If the images we created today become dated, it may only mean we view them with the fond nostalgia that I feel for my old flyers.

Becky: I, too, have spent an inordinate amount of time looking for JUST the right picture for a blog post or presentation. It feels enormously important, especially as we do become more and more visual and of-the-moment. I don’t know how much of our generation will start reading our book reviews solely off a screen (where we can easily get the benefit of multimedia reviews), but I have heard of a toddler poking an image in a magazine, trying to make the page react. Old-media reviews may soon be read only by old-media readers!

It’s also interesting that the author says multimedia book reviewing is in its infancy, but I’ve heard more than one person say that reaction GIFs are “kind of over” and certain ones definitely need to stop being used. As with all things, I think we will keep our eyes upon the trendsetters — teens themselves. The article says, “Is it really such a surprise that an Internet review of a book for and about teenagers should be written pretty much the way teenagers write stuff on the Internet?” How will teens be writing about stuff on the internet next year, with echoes sure to be found in customer book reviews? I can’t wait to find out!

Do you feel that professional reviews are compromised by the proliferation of customer reviews?

Carla: I don’t think professional reviews are compromised as much as they are complemented by customer reviews. From this librarian’s point of view, reading reviews can be time consuming and sometimes boring. Sometimes they can be too professional. When writing a professional review, people aren’t likely to get passionate one way or another about a book. On the other hand if I see a book on Goodreads that has a bunch of teens reviewing it, even if they are glib and use a bunch of silly pictures in their reviews, I’m far more likely to consider buying it because I know teens are already talking about it and have strong feelings about it. And since they are the ones we’re buying the books for, it makes sense to look at them through their eyes. When I was a teen I never looked at a professional review and I read based on word of mouth and class assignment lists. Even if I’d had access to professional reviews I doubt I’d have bothered with them. We need the professional reviews professionally, but I think having access to customer reviews helps us with trends and speaks more to everyone and not just a select group.

Diane: For one thing, Amazon seems to have moved towards publishing only favorable reviews from professional publications, or just quoting a “faint praise” kind of phrase from the review text. For example, the actual words in the professional review may have been, “Despite the slow start, patient teen readers will love the action-packed finale,” but Amazon’s excerpt reads, “Teen readers will love the action-packed finale.” As a librarian, I love the detail of professional reviews. But as a bookseller, Amazon may only need to encourage a sale. Seems like that leaves the real critiquing to the customer reviews, at least as far as the general public views it.

Becky: I agree with Carla that there is room for both. Not everyone speaks pop-culture lingo, and a professional review, while dry, can still be the best one-stop summary for plot points, red flags, a style summary, and intended and recommended audiences — answering the “should I buy this?” question for librarians on a budget. And, of course, YALSA’s book awards and booklists are invaluable in keeping up with the best in YA literature. Customer reviews, on the other hand, by their very proliferation, can form a current map of feelings and trends that a tuned-in teen librarian will not ignore. The large grain of salt, as Diane mentioned, is the hand controlling the content. It’s worth being aware when Amazon is quoting reviews edited down to, essentially, cover blurbs — positive short phrases only. And although Goodreads is now owned by Amazon, it looks like they have not taken action on the suggestion (mentioned in the Salon article) about banning GIFs in Goodreads reviews.

Carla is currently reading The Sandman and the War of Dreams by William Joyce

Becky is currently reading Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff

Diane is currently reading On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

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4 Responses
  1. January 21, 2014

    I have no strong opinions about GIF reviews, but I’ve often wondered about the intellectual property implications. Someone owns copyright to the original images and footage, and turning them into a GIF and publishing or republishing it without clearing or paying permissions infringes those rights. I suppose there’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube and maybe some rights holders don’t care, but some surely do and thus sites that publish reviews should care as well.

    • Diane Colson permalink
      January 22, 2014

      Hi Kell,
      I’ve wondered about copyright infringements as well. After some amateur sleuthing on the Internet, I found a variety of opinions. For the most part, unless the GIF maker is using self-created content, or has permission from the person who owns the copyright, use of theGIF is a copyright infringement. The arguments about legality focus on the application of Fair Use.

      You make a good point about the toothpaste, Kell! Here’s a Tumblr blog by a law student, #wheninlawschool. The animated GIF proliferation has for the most part been accepted as status quo. Does this make it legal? I suppose we won’t know until someone gets sued.

      If anyone can speak knowledgeably about this topic, please add your comments!

  2. Tamara permalink
    January 21, 2014

    Sometimes I get annoyed with GIFs because they look so much like tacky advertisements that I find they distract from the other content on a page. But they’re so FUNNY. And appropriate, at times. My feeling is that they work, and work well, but only if used sparingly.

    • Diane Colson permalink
      January 22, 2014

      Hi Tamara,
      Yes, sometimes a web page filled with animated GIFs feels like walking into an arcade! Too much.

      As Becky noted in our discussion, some say that GIFs are already passe. My hunch is that it will be taken up by more adults, a la Facebook, before the fun is over.

      What do others think?

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