The GIF is now 30 years old, but it already feels immortal — possibly because it’s already outlasted the internet’s most turbulent periods of evolution. And as we consider the legacy of the internet’s greatest file format, we must pause to recognize a special category of GIF that’s left an indelible mark on social media: the reaction GIF.
The internet would appear to have many, many, many candidates for “greatest GIF of all time,” but it’s undeniable that some reaction GIFs are so ubiquitous that the average internet user can likely picture them simply from reading a description. When you can shorthand “blinking white guy” and have people understand exactly which blinking white guy you’re talking about, your reaction GIF has reached peak internet saturation.
Here are Vox’s choices for the most iconic reaction GIFs on the internet — ranked by order of necessity to our lives, from occasionally essential to can’t-use-the-internet-without-them.
16) lol nothing matters
Origin: Tumblr word art artist Cat Frazier made this GIF in 2012. And many people thought it summed up the national zeitgeist then.
When to use it: Whenever the state of the world or the news or your life or anything else makes you feel like absolutely nothing matters anymore.
15) Homer slowly backing away
Origin: This iconic awkward Simpsons moment appears in season five, episode 16, “Homer Loves Flanders”; it’s Homer’s reaction to finding out that the Flanders family wants some non-Homer time to themselves.
When to use: You’ve walked into an awkward situation, or just stumbled upon a major internet can of worms that you’d prefer not to open.
14) Leo DiCaprio’s Gatsby
Origin: 2013’s The Great Gatsby was a sumptuous visual feast, but this meme-orable moment has transcended its context to become an all-purpose reaction for the ages.
When to use it: Whenever you want to toast or congratulate someone on the internet — either ironically or sincerely.
13) Obama’s mic drop
Origin: When President Obama finished his remarks at his final White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2016, he literally dropped the mic.
When to use it: Whenever you need to drop the mic, make a killer exit, or end on a high note.
12) How do you do, Fellow Kids?
Origin: Steve Buscemi’s 2009 guest appearance in 30 Rock’s fourth season led to this timeless moment — timeless because, for as long as the world continues to turn, old and uncool adults will continue to flail while attempting to connect with Today’s Youth.
When to use it: Whenever an Old is attempting to blend in with the Youngs. Warning: Using this GIF while Old may not actually make you appear more hip.
11) Blinking white guy
Origin: One of the newest additions to the reaction GIF canon has been everywhere this year. The blinking white guy in question is gamer Drew Scanlon, and the meme is his priceless reaction in 2013 to a fellow gamer’s casual description of “farming with my hoe.” (Admit it: You like it even more now that you know this.)
When to use it: Whenever Nathan Fillion’s speechlessness (see #6) just isn’t quite enough to convey your level of speechlessness.
10) James Van Der Beek Is Crying
Origin: This is actually a pivotal moment for Dawson’s Creek fans — it’s the season three finale, “True Love,” and the decisive moment comes when our (controversial) hero, Dawson, loses it over his realization that the girl he loves would be better off with her much healthier soul mate ... who isn’t him.
The famous moment reportedly wasn’t scripted — Van Der Beek–as–Dawson was just that upset. According to Vox’s own teen drama expert Constance Grady, “the fandom really hated Dawson and hardcore shipped Joey/Pacey, so there was a lot of schadenfreude in that moment where he essentially ‘lost’” — all of which helped catapult this GIF to perennial meme status.
When to use it: When you just can’t hold back your emotions or want to sarcastically overreact — or, if you’re feeling particularly mean, mock someone else’s overreaction to whatever situation is at hand.
9) Kermit flail
Origin: Jim Henson’s most famous Muppet is known for his frequent flailing jags on The Muppet Show, and this GIF captures the height of that tendency.
When to use it: When your excitement just can’t be contained.
8) The cool walk
Origin: It took seven seasons of Mad Men for Peggy Olson to amass the confidence and life experience required to make her famous penultimate-episode hallway walk a viral moment — but actress Elisabeth Moss sold every step, incidentally sauntering into internet history.
When to use it: This GIF is usually read as a mic drop moment, even though Peggy is technically entering her new office for the first time. Use it whenever you want to make an exit and leave ’em wanting more, or react to someone doing likewise.
7) The slow clap
Origin: Orson Welles determinedly applauding the critically panned opera debut of his mistress, as the title character in the classic 1941 film Citizen Kane.
When to use it: This GIF is tricky because, while its subject is fiercely clapping, contextually we know that the target of his applause is objectively Not Great, Bob. If you’re committed to a contextual reading, you should save this GIF for times when you’re mocking someone who’s standing alone in their commitment to an unwise idea. But if you just want to declare your unwavering support for someone online, go forth and slow clap them all the way home.
6) Speechless Nathan Fillion
Origin: This famous GIF features actor Nathan Fillion in Castle’s title role, and comes specifically from the 2009 episode “Love Me Dead.” The hour sees Castle rendered momentarily speechless after his daughter tells him she wants to go to college overseas.
When to use it: Whenever someone leaves you at a loss for words — and usually not in a good way.
5) Supa Hot Fire’s ultimate rap battle win
Origin: Satirical rapper Supa Hot Fire bested upstart challenger B-Bone in 2011 in one of the greatest parody rap battle videos on YouTube.
When to use it: In context, the reactions from the fans surrounding Supa are meant to be over the top. Out of context, their hysteria provides the perfect reaction GIF for that moment when you’re overwhelmed by the ultimate diss, mic drop, witty bon mot, or other supremely badass event.
4) We were all rooting for you!
Origin: Tyra Banks’s unexpected eruption at an America’s Next Top Model contestant who just wasn’t cutting it in 2005 went viral and became a famous reality TV moment — a reaction GIF before the reaction GIF really existed.
When to use it: Whenever someone disappoints you, and the internet collectively, as they inevitably will because life isn’t fair.
3) Simon Cowell is happy for once
Origin: Simon Cowell’s viral reaction to hearing Susan Boyle sing for the first time on The X Factor in 2009 captured a rare moment when the famously hard-to-impress reality host experienced unexpected bliss.
When to use it: Whenever a blissful ray of pure, unfiltered delight punctures your dark and cynical soul.
2) Surprise! Everything is on fire.
When to use it: Whenever you’ve briefly stepped away from something and returned to find chaos ensuing, drama unfolding, or madness happening — or whenever you think you may have entered the Darkest Timeline.
1) Popcorn.gif (Michael Jackson eating popcorn)
Origin: This GIF is so ubiquitous that internet users will often simply write “popcorn.gif” as shorthand for sharing the actual image, which hails from Michael Jackson eating popcorn in a scene from the 1982 video for “Thriller.” It’s fitting that one of the most famous pop songs ever written has also produced the internet’s most recognizable and all-purpose reaction GIF.
When to use it: Whenever there’s a debate, someone’s making an ass of themselves, or in general something entertaining is happening online. So basically, anywhere and everywhere.