One of the most peculiar advances in modern offices is that employees can now communicate with GIFs. While past generations resorted to expressing their workplace feelings out loud, today’s workers who use email and instant messenger services like Slack can tell the never-ending visual story of their emotions using a looping animation of a pop singer, TV show or cartoon character on fire.
The right work GIFs are easy to choose for good news. Welcoming a new teammate?
Got a promotion or a raise?
But we spend a huge chunk of our lives working, and there are sometimes harder emotions involved than unreserved happiness and gratitude. What is the best GIF for those moments in a career?
I argue there is one perfect GIF to communicate all the in-between, ambivalent emotions you may feel working for an unfeeling corporation: Elmo on fire.
Know Your Meme traces the beginning of the Elmo-on-fire meme to a cake decoration. I cannot confirm these origins or the identity of the genius who first thought to place this children’s Muppet made of icing into the fiery pits of hell, hands raised, eyes pleading upward, but I thank them.
This GIF is perfect because words can fail. They cannot always encompass all your feelings about work neatly or professionally in a group channel that bosses can see. Slack, after all, stands for Searchable Log of All Communication and Knowledge. GIFs add ambiguity into the public-facing world employees inhabit where messy feelings about work are hashed out furtively in person and online.
I have used Elmo on Fire to communicate my feelings about layoffs, all-hands meetings, press, sudden organizational pivots, managers and free food spotted in the office. The bulging eyes and crackling flames place Elmo ambiguously between excitement, anticipation and fear, a messy place of emotions in which anxious workers often dwell.
Elmo also avoids the racial and gendered dynamics inherent in sharing human GIFs, which can be filled with cultural references your colleagues may not understand and fraught with power dynamics that may offend your co-workers. Writing in Teen Vogue about the prevalent use of black people in reaction GIFs, Lauren Michele Jackson argued, “We all need to be cognizant of what we share, how we share, and to what extent that sharing dramatizes preexisting racial formulas inherited from ‘real life.’” A children’s Muppet is a safer workplace choice because it is a puppet that was always meant to be a puppet, not a black person made to do emotional labor online forever as your “yaas” response in Slack.
I also love Elmo on Fire’s simple design. The best GIFs persuade you to believe the more you watch them, and a puppet on fire is instantly legible, no captions necessary. And unlike other GIFs shared for mixed news, it has a fighting spirit that I relate to as well.
I was once at a job where firings and dwindling cash flow were discussed with a GIF of the Titanic sinking.
Not my favorite choice. The sinking ship implies defeat.
Elmo on Fire is not going to give in so easily. Elmo’s tiny hands are raised upward, beckoning the world to come closer to the fire. There are no hunched shoulders of despair. Elmo is not going to just sip coffee and say, “This is fine,” when things are not fine. The furry red monster on fire does not believe in false promises.
Arms up, Elmo is waiting for the roller coaster to drop. This Muppet wants to see how far this ride is going to go. I take this mentality when numbers go into the red and colleagues start gossiping about the future. I, as your colleague, cannot promise that you will have a job tomorrow, but I can promise that I will be there with you to help you face that uncertain future together.
Communicating dissent in a workplace under increasing technological surveillance is getting trickier. If your off-the-cuff workplace chats got subpoenaed tomorrow, as they once were for Gawker employees, would you be prepared to defend them? I feel relief knowing that a silent Elmo lets me get away with multiple possible meanings.
Reaction gifs ultimately depend on the sender’s relationship to the recipient for the right meaning to land. Are you sending to your peer or to a manager? Proceed with caution. Personally, though, when I send Elmo in a world on fire to colleagues, I am letting the GIF convey my “Ahhhhhh!” for me when I cannot say the words out loud.
“We are all in hell now,” Elmo says for me. “It’s lit.”