As digital culture becomes mainstream culture, visual language has become a fundamental element of communication. GIFs, emojis, and memes are a language of their own – conveying emotions, niche jokes, and reactions. Online, without our voices or facial expressions, these forms of visual language are speeding up the pace of communication as well as giving nuance to our written words.

GIFS in Decline

In 2016, Tumblr’s then-head of creative strategy, David Hynes, said GIFs were “the file format of the internet generation.” GIFs were such a cultural force that in the early 2010s, the Museum of Moving Image in New York put on an exhibition of reaction GIFs. Meanwhile, Facebook, Twitter, and iMessage all added GIF-searching features, making wordless emotional expression even easier.

Today, it feels like GIFs are dying. If you want to convey a specific emotion in a tweet or text or Slack message, the GIF-search feature or GIPHY will churn out the same handful of super-popular GIFs, causing certain reaction GIFs became overused. As older adults became more tech-savvy and got access to GIF libraries, GIFs lost their cool factor.

Niche reactions and DIY memes now reign supreme, making GIFs feel “cringe” to younger generations because they’re so available.

But are GIFs truly dead?

The GIF has a few holdouts, however. The introduction of GIFs to Reddit has allowed the format to live a little longer. Formerly a paid perk, Reddit now allows everybody to reply with a GIF and Subreddits have the option to enable GIFs in the comments. As happens elsewhere, the same GIFs show up everywhere because they come from GIPHY’s moderated collection.

And as visual language continues to evolve, audiences still crave a moving image format that gives them the power to choose. Short-form video apps like Vine and later TikTok gave people who spend a lot of time on social media an opportunity to hone their comedic timing. Gen Z is more video-first than other generations – and on Twitter especially, they react with super-short video clips that are effectively GIFs with sound.

Rise of the Emoji

As social media and text-only internet formats have grown, so have emojis. With over 3,600 options to choose from, they don’t feel old yet. Instead, the use cases and meanings change. There are now five billion emojis sent every day, and 72% of 18- to 25-year-olds say they are more likely to express emotions with emojis rather than words.

There is an art to the emoji, with generational differences in their use. For example, the skull emoji might literally mean death to an older person, while a younger person might use it to mean “dead,” as in they were laughing so hard it killed them. Now a love language all their own, emojis can make or break a first impression and ignite a possible flame – or extinguish one. One-third of Gen Z has ended a relationship with someone by using an emoji.

Emojis at Work

The pandemic sent many workers home to communicate via Slack and Zoom. Without face-to-face interactions, emojis took over the job of laughs, head nods, and raised eyebrows. Workplace communication has since pivoted heavily toward instant messages. Microsoft found that the average Teams user sent 32% more chats each week in February 2022 compared to March 2020—a figure that continues to increase. Additionally, 75% of American workers say showing their personality through informal work messages has helped them better connect with colleagues, according to a Slack survey.

Workplace emoji use has also evolved to include dialects from different nationalities. Over a third of French, Australian, and German Slack users agree that their company has its own “language” when it comes to emojis. Corporate jargon has also been reduced. Dreaded cliches like “let’s circle back” or “low-hanging fruit” are being swapped out for emojis and clearer language, with 78% of American workers stopping themselves from sending a message that uses corporate jargon.

Audio: The New Frontier

Visual language is also extending to an audio-first digital landscape. While emojis capture feelings like shock or sadness, audio concepts capture more niche emotions. On TikTok, mixes music and images to capture feelings like “walking through a forest” and “running away with the love of your life.”

Videos dubbed “chaos edits” are becoming telltale products of the post-YouTube era. Thanks to TikTok, vlogging styles are now shorter, faster, and more ironic than ever – think sped-up audio, intentionally low-quality image or sound, and bizarre humor, together with PowerPoint-style transitions.

So, we are entering the era of the audio meme, where replicable units of sound are almost stronger than images and text. According to linguists, this is linked to “brainfeel,” a quality that makes sound compelling beyond musicality or linguistic meaning. Certain TikTok sounds elicit certain reactions, like the “oh no” sound meaning something crazy is about to occur, or “TWINNEM” makes you think of your best friend. Much like the way emojis have been used, an audio reaction via a commonly recognized TikTok clip can describe how you are feeling in the moment. The audio elicits reactions and already tells you what the content will be.

The Future Is Audiovisual

As the internet becomes ever more splintered, visual language will continue to evolve. An emoji from a 14-year-old will mean something different to a 65-year-old. TikTok audio that implies that you are brokenhearted will just sound like a normal sentence to someone who doesn’t use TikTok. A mom sending a GIF reaction for a celebrated moment will feel like an “ick” for a Gen Z daughter.

In ever-changing ways, shorthand language in the form of images and audio will continue to allow us to express an array of emotions without saying a word.