• Newsfeed
  • language

Forget Words, a Lot of Millennials Say GIFs and Emojis Communicate Their Thoughts Better Than English

3 minute read

Visuals like emojis and GIFs can make up for the useful cues that are often missing from digital chit-chatting: the raise of an eyebrow, the shrug of the shoulders, the rolling of an eye. But a new survey reveals that many people believe those visuals aren’t just helpful for adding clarity in text and mobile messages. They actually feel that they can better express themselves through these digital tools than through old-fashioned English.

In a survey conducted by Harris Poll and commissioned by GIF platform Tenor, 36% of millennials ages 18 to 34 who use “visual expressions” such as emojis, GIFs and stickers say that those images better communicate their thoughts and feelings than words do. That’s more than twice the amount of people over the age of 65 who say the same. Roughly a quarter of people in the age groups between those two demographics feel that images can paint a clearer picture than words.

When asked solely about conveying emotion through animated images, the preference was even greater: Nearly two-thirds of millennials said GIFs did the job better than words, compared to about 40% of those in their golden years. “People fundamentally crave the ability to express the full range of human emotions,” said Tenor CEO David McIntosh. And unlike emojis — a static and limited set of images — GIFs can intersect with moments of pop culture that convey a far broader range of sentiments (and inside jokes).

The poll, released Tuesday, surveyed more than 2,000 U.S. adults in May. Of the sample, about 1,400 said they use such visuals in text or mobile messaging. And when asked the question with slightly different wording — whether those images help people better understand “the thoughts and feelings I’m trying to communicate” than words alone — almost 80% agreed.

While the majority of people across age groups also said they feel “more connected” to people they frequently message when using emojis and GIFs, young people expressed a much higher level of comfort with smiley faces than actual dialogue. When asked whether they are “more comfortable” expressing emotions through those visuals than through phone conversations, 68% of millennials agreed, compared to 37% of those over the age of 65.

McIntosh said the company frequently surveys its users and keeps track of what people are searching for when they go looking for a GIF. The company has counted up billions of unique searches — for “smile” or “smirk” or “smh” — that users often make a lot more specific by combining with a person or movie or moment. After all, a “Steph Curry smile” is a lot different than a grin from a Cheshire cat or a beamer from Harry Potter.

The term GIF is 30 years old this year, but as technology has improved and the amount of digital video has exploded, those graphic files have become a language of their own. As McIntosh put it, what might seem like goofy nonsense does useful work in helping people “more accurately express the thoughts and feelings and emotions trapped in their head.”

They’re also just a good time. More than half of people of all ages said they use emojis and GIFs in messages to make people laugh, to lighten the mood and because they “make conversations more fun.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com