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Reaction Faces are images or animated gifs of faces that are meant to portray a specific emotion in response to something that has been said. They are commonly used in discussion threads in a similar fashion to emoticons.
Reaction faces have their roots in the pictorial representation of facial expressions known as “emoticons”, with the first recorded instance produced by Scott Fahlman on September 19th, 1982. The exact origin of reaction faces is difficult to trace, but it early examples have appeared on Futaba Channel (2chan) and 4chan. One of the earliest known reaction faces is the facepalm, which was first recorded on Urban Dictionary on February 10th, 2004.
Facial expressions can be used as a means of nonverbal communication to express a specific emotion to other people. Reaction faces are often used without accompanying text, as the image itself expresses what the poster is attempting to convey.
Reaction faces became a part of several forum games on 4chan like the my face when game that involves posting an appropriate reaction face in response to a prompted event or situation. 4chanarchive has several archived threads showing reaction faces being used in various contexts.
The MyFaceWhen.com reaction face database was created on March 10th, 2010. The Tumblr page “Fuck Yeah Reaction Face” was created on October 10th, 2010. The MyFaceWhen.net reaction face database was registered 1 year later on March 14th, 2011. A reaction face related Facebook fan page has 68,903 likes as of October 4th, 2011.
James Van Der Memes
With the popularity of the crying dawson GIF, Funny or Die collaborated with James Van Der Beek to create jamesvandermemes.com on January 3, 2011. The site featured additional Van Der Beek reaction faces displaying happiness, eye rolls and awkwardness.
The original GIF was made from a clip from Season 3 episode 23 of Dawson’s Creek. The scene takes place after Dawson’s parents are remarried, and Joey Potter (Katie Holmes) meets and rejects him in favor of Pacey Whitter (Joshua Jackson).
Computer Reaction Faces
Computer reaction faces are a specific type of reaction image that are meant to express what the poster is feeling while looking at their computer screen, and are often drawn comics rather than actual photos.
The Massimo d’Alema reaction face is a photo featuring the Italian politician looking shocked and appaled. One of the first archived threads showing the reaction image was posted on June 21th, 2007. (See also long Long Neck Reaction Guy)
Rage comic faces are used to convey specific emotions in comic form, and are often drawn in black and white. The comics are typically used in storytelling to share humorous experiences and can be easily made using various rage comic web applications.
Search queries for “reaction face” picked up in October of 2008 in the United States, several months after the first threads began popping up on 4chan.