Everett Yang was sorting through the files on their computer when they came across an ancient artefact. It was a folder filled with almost a hundred moving images; a buffet of emotions that Yang had carefully labelled for ease of use. Take “aaaaaaay spongebob”, a loop of the sea sponge firing off finger guns whilst walking backwards through a door. “HAPPY COCKATOO” was exactly what it sounded like – as was “heavy eyebrow wiggle” and “spit take”. The 22-year-old software engineer from New York felt a flood of emotions at discovering, in 2018, what they now describe as “a relic”. They were amused; they were embarrassed; it was a bit like finding an old diary. The folder was entitled “Reaction GIFS”.
GIF folders were used by ancient civilisations as a way to store and catalogue animated pictures that were once employed to convey emotion. Okay, you probably know what a GIF folder is – but the concept of a special folder needed to store and save GIFs is increasingly alien in an era where every messaging app has its own in-built GIF library you can access with a single tap. And to many youngsters, GIFs themselves are increasingly alien too – or at least, okay, increasingly uncool.
“Who uses gifs in 2020 grandma,” one Twitter user speedily responded to Taylor Swift in August that year when the singer-songwriter opted for an image of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson mouthing the words “oh my god” to convey her excitement at reaching yet another career milestone. You don’t have to look far to find other tweets or TikToks mocking GIFs as the preserve of old people – which, yes, now means millennials. How exactly did GIFs become so embarrassing? Will they soon disappear forever, like Homer Simpson backing up into a hedge?
GIFs might currently be uncool, but that doesn’t mean they’re unpopular. At the beginning of the pandemic, GIF library GIPHY reported that GIF usage had gone up 33 percent in a single month. Perhaps you saw this play out in your family WhatsApp group – anecdotally, at least, it seems that increased time online means many mums, dads, and grandmas discovered GIFs for the first time during lockdown, though no official stats have confirmed this yet. Gen Z might think GIFs are beloved by millennials, but at the same time, many millennials are starting to see GIFs as a boomer plaything.
And this is the first and easiest explanation as to why GIFs are losing their cultural cachet. Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication at Syracuse University and author of multiple books on internet culture, says that early adopters have always grumbled when new (read: old) people start to encroach on their digital space. Memes, for example, were once subcultural and niche. When Facebook came along and made them more widespread, Redditors and 4Chan users were genuinely annoyed that people capitalised on the fruits of their posting without putting in the cultural work. “That democratisation creates a sense of disgust with people who consider themselves insiders,” Phillips explains. “That’s been central to the process of cultural production online for decades at this point.”
Today it’s easy to forget that every GIF has a creator, and indeed that many GIFs are creative – they’re just there. For decades, there was labour involved not just in making GIFs, but also finding and saving them, hence folders like Yang’s. In 2016, Twitter launched its GIF search function, as did WhatsApp and iMessage. A year later, Facebook introduced its own GIF button in the comment section on the site. GIFs became not only centralised but highly commercialised, culminating in Facebook buying GIPHY for $400 million in 2020.
“The more GIFs there are, maybe the less they’re regarded as being special treasures or gifts that you’re giving people,” Phillips says. “Rather than looking far and wide to find a GIF to send you, it’s clicking the search button and typing a word. The gift economy around GIFs has shifted.”
The GIF was invented in 1987 and it’s important to note the format has already fallen out of favour and had a comeback multiple times before. Jason Eppink is an independent artist and curator who curated an exhibition on GIFs for the Museum of the Moving Image in New York in 2014. Eppink says GIFs were favoured by GeoCities users in the 90s who wanted to further personalise their personal websites, and in the early noughties people used “different kinds of GIFs” on their social media pages (think the Blingee graphics of the MySpace era).
“And so when Facebook launched, they didn’t support GIFs. It was not cool. They were like, ‘We don’t want this ugly symbol of amateur web to clutter our neat and uniform cool new website,” Eppink says. GIFs had a resurgence when fan communities on Tumblr made them cool again so, as Eppink summarises: “They’ve already been reborn once.”
But why might Gen Z, in particular, be a confused-little-girl-in-a-car-seat about a format that made generations before them feel all Leonardo-DiCaprio-raising-a-toast? Robyn Ní Ríain is a 22-year-old retail worker from Dublin who can’t recall ever using a GIF (she prefers emojis). In 2020, she was having a Twitter fight with a millennial who replied with a Beyoncé GIF that made her “cringe sooo badly”. Not only is the format itself a bit embarrassing to Ní Ríain, she also feels that GIF senders regularly engage in digital blackface. Today, the only person who sends Ní Ríain GIFs regularly is her mum.
Erika Gajda is 28-year-old assistant podcast producer from London who is a millennial but sees GIFs as an “elder millennial” thing (think people born in the late 80s, as opposed to the early 90s). “I think as memes and Instagram rose in popularity, seeing GIFs in action became rarer and therefore dated,” Gajda says – she’s used them in Slack messages at work in the past, but avoids them today. “I always found them a bit gauche – like you don’t really know what else to say.”
This is how I feel about gifs – my eyes glaze over when I see them, and they rarely register as something being “said”, but rather seem like the absence of saying something. Linda Kaye, a cyberpsychology professor at Edge Hill University, hasn’t done direct research in this area but theorises that the ever-growing popularity of video-sharing on TikTok means younger generations are more used to “personalised content creation”, and GIFs can seem comparatively lazy. “I think the issue with GIFs is that you often tend to see people using the same ones to express a certain sentiment – the ‘blinking/double take’ guy for surprise or the Leonardo DiCaprio raising a glass for celebration – maybe people are becoming fatigued from over-use of certain ones.”
Gajda backs up Kaye’s theory. “I follow and am friends with a lot of ‘content creators’, aka e-girls who make their own memes or guided meditation videos,” she says, “So I’m used to seeing a lot of content made by people themselves rather than relying on a muted video of Phoebe from Friends.” Fundamentally, for Gajda, GIFs “just feel like a really bad attempt at a joke but the person isn’t original enough to come up with something funny on their own.”
But of course it’s silly to generalise too much about generational attitudes to GIFs – Yang is Gen Z, and they used GIFs on Tumblr for most of their teenage years. “Sometimes, pictures can effectively convey more emotions than words,” they say – and they add that animated emojis on Discord are currently very popular with young people. But Yang stopped using reaction GIFs around 2016 because they “grew out of it” and “started to associate frequent reaction GIF usage as obnoxious and immature”. Yang began to feel that they didn’t add anything to conversations and could even interrupt the flow of them.
Despite creating an entire exhibition around them, Eppink also doesn’t use GIFs much anymore. Like Yang, he used to have a GIF folder, and thinks that today’s easy access libraries have “flattened” their effect. “I find it harder to find a GIF that expresses what I want to express when I’m using those platforms,” he says. Like cyberpsychologist Kaye, he notes that TikTok has normalised sharing videos of ourselves – why select a GIF to show “your reaction when…”, if you can simply turn on your camera and record your actual reaction?
That’s not to say the GIF is dead. They haven’t disappeared from your family WhatsApp chat, for one, and there are still 21.3 million people subscribed to the subreddit r/gifs, which currently sees 1,467 new comments a day. Academic Phillips theorises that there might be an ironic resurgence in GIF use – much like the deliberately shitty “dank memes” that rose in popularity when memes went mainstream. Perhaps the waxing and waning popularity of the GIF is an ironic mirror of the format itself – destined to repeat endlessly, looping over and over again.