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Chow Yun Fat GIFs a better tomorrow

How better to communicate than with a little disdain and a small dose of nostalgia?


CHOW Yun Fat is a GIF. And that was not a typo. Though, no doubt, the Hong Kong actor is a remarkable gift to the Asian film industry (and for the purpose of this analysis, let's ignore Pirates of the Caribbean). But he has also been immortalised in a piece of art lasting all of two seconds, where - as the famed character in the classic gangster flick A Better Tomorrow - he pops out through a window, and flashes a thumbs up while chewing his meal rather emphatically, before popping out of the frame.

There are few things more hypnotic than a young Chow Yun Fat who, with casual aplomb, informs the world that he approves, while masticating his, well, chow.

It is as multi-faceted as the man himself. On chats, I use the animated GIF to encourage friends, to acknowledge work assignments, and to approve of other GIFs ranging from Korean stars emoting through intense gazes, to dancing Tuzki emoticons. It's the GIF that keeps on giving.

But such banter at work is now thrown into peril for this reporter. As the company moves to a new email system, we may no longer be able to send GIFs to one another - an undeniable form of productive activity, soon to be lost.

Mildly speaking, this is quite the calamity in this digital communication age, amid the torrential flood of daily emails. With the incessant access to them through smartphones, today's office worker has to navigate through a communications labyrinth built in this modern world, with GIFs and other pictographs as the few upsides of such rapid transformation.

Chow Yun Fatt

What underlies the estimated 269 billion daily emails sent worldwide in February this year, are embedded strategies to convey thoughts and actions that require careful crafting, because a poor use of the medium ends up creating the wrong impression.

There are some basics. If you want your emails read, don't send them on a Friday - when emails are least likely to be read - data from technology research firm Radicati Group showed.

There are complex games of passive aggression. To sound both terse and approachable, some use short sentences, but end the text with an ellipsis or a now nondescript smiley face that at best, says "Here is my feeble attempt at an interpersonal connection while on a deadline."

To show unfettered enthusiasm about a new project, use multiple exclamation marks, thereby spreading a communicable disease called bangorrhea. To ensure no one reads the email that only your boss thought was a good idea to send out, use subject head "YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS!!! XXX", guaranteeing that the IT department will send it straight to NSFW spam.

With the inundation of emails, even sign-offs have become divisive. Wars continue to be waged over "best" versus "best regards", as if the 269 billion emails weren't enough to wear the two camps down. The world would be a grander place if we all signed off, "frankly, at our worst".

In the average 121 emails a day received by an office worker, the interplay of words has become a more intricate dance than before, amid greater speed-writing and wider intrusion into what was once time out of the office. In many ways, emails have perverted language, turning it into a weapon of obfuscation or perfunctory courtesy.

Modern office communication is exhausting, and now looms large over our lives. But with new communication forms, from emojis to stickers, people are taking back their freedom to express themselves openly and more directly, differentiating their communication for separate audiences quickly, and with ease.

The language is already evolving. It could explain why slang for simple terms of affirmation have emerged. The word "ok" has at least four variants. Different spellings aside, the tonal quality of "okiedoke" is on one end of the spectrum, with "k" at the other end. Pedants bemoan the evolution of the language, but today, self-actualisation trumps rigid language rules.

In a friendlier communiqué to stimulate camaraderie, people throw in the shrug emoticon to succinctly show both befuddlement and detachment. (As a composite of Western punctuation and Japanese syllabary called katakan, it also acknowledges the beginnings of emojis - derived from the Japanese words "e" meaning picture, and "moji", or character.)

In South Korea, colleagues trade stickers on caricatures of modern life, including one from a series called Salaryman Mr Ho. The sticker protagonist squeezes into trains, is slumped in front of his laptop, and thinks of beer-o-clock while at work. Salaryman Mr Ho is you and me.

No wonder the Oxford Dictionaries deemed 2015's most shared emoji "word of the year" - the first-ever pictograph to be given that distinction. Is the face-with-tears-of-joy emoji part of language now? Word.

The deep craving for some siloed communication also explains why the same person on Twitter sounds more acerbic than his sunkissed-with-a-filter self on Instagram. Communication lines are being redrawn, and personalities are now fracturing to fit different digital mediums.

There are problems with this fracture, with studies showing that narcissism is on the rise. Everyone wants to be heard, and now they can be, and can also select a version of themselves to peddle to their selected audience. It's become complicated, too.

So my favourite digital communication tool remains the GIF. The renaissance of GIFs, in all its 30 years of glory, heralds the quick, clear, characterisation of a day in modern life through short bursts of animated expressions, be they of celebrities or sloths. It's a little healthy escapism. The best for me carry a little disdain about life, and a small dose of nostalgia for simpler times, when face-to-face communication was common, and perhaps a little bit more straightforward and honest.

Which is why as the company migrates to a new system that is alarmingly devoid of GIFs, a small and disavowed team at work is also scheming to streamline GIF porting.

The task is laborious, but a grave imperative, and I hope the team succeeds. Because with today's complex world of communication, we perhaps need repeated reassurance from Chow Yun Fat, in all his flapping trenchcoat glory, that tomorrow is going to be okiedoke/okay/ok/k.

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