The internet of yesterday is no more. Long gone are the days of HTML frames, kitschy border graphics and blinking scrolly-text. But from the ashes of the anarchy that was Web 1.0, there is one flavor of imagery that has lived on long past its own expiration date. The animated GIF’s role in today’s internet isn’t steeped purely in nostalgia, however. What was once a ubiquitous embellishment on the web pages of commoners and corporations alike is now so much more. Come with me as we explore the many faces of these versatile, digital zoetropes.
The GIF As A Natural Part Of The Web’s Ecology
The GIF is unique because it’s a format generated as a direct result of the web’s creation. Even on the fastest connections 1992 had to offer, you weren’t going to be be able to see video of any sort. Nor would you be well-equipped to load regular images – not with any semblance of swiftness, at least. The solution was simple: tiny animated loops to give life to our otherwise flat and boring world wide web.
Looking at it this way, it’s easy to see the GIF as a relic of the Web’s primordial ecology, one that has trickled into modern day internetting by persistently reviving its own relevance. But how can that be when things like CSS, Flash and YouTube have all but confirmed the GIF’s obsolescence?
The GIF As A Moment In Time
Human memory is intimately tied to isolated moments in time. According to the Atkinson-Shifrin model – the same one that divided human memory into long-term, short-term and sensory – most of the things we experience are not committed to long-term memory beyond a few select moments. So it makes sense that we’ve embraced GIFs as these suspended moments in time, looping only the information necessary to conjure a particular emotion or memory.
Artist Tom Moody equates them to cinematic close-ups, describing them as “abstractions isolating the object from the time-space coordinates in which we were moving… A close-up immediately cancels out the whole that precedes it… the endlessly looping structure does enhance a kind of ‘anaesthetic’ state…”
Whether it’s the weird face your friend made in a few frames of home video or Jermaine and Bret getting buck on Flight of the Conchords (or even, yes, porn), the GIF is a kind of media-memory curation that isolates the most potent moments of an experience for our shared appreciation or laughter.
The GIF As A Means Of Expression
But GIFs aren’t just things we store away in a folder and peruse from time to time. As Metafilter poster dreamyshade points out, GIFs play an active role in communication, especially on image boards and social blogging sites like 4chan and Tumblr, where a picture is oftentimes a more common response than text:
“On 4chan, a lot of the images posted (that aren’t macros) are “reaction images” — images of faces that represent readers’ responses to the original post. This site has the authoritative collection of reaction images: MyFaceWhen — and it calls them “Like using emoticons, on steroids!”
That is exactly what’s going on, and it’s fantastic: instead of having text abstractions stand in for our faces, they/we use other people’s faces to stand in for our faces when talking anonymously and virtually."
This method is so effective (and in almost all cases, humorous) that many communities on the net have adopted this form of communication wholesale, keeping massive libraries of GIFs stored on their computers so they’ll be adequately prepared to deliver the appropriate animated responses. GIF playground dump.fm is a virtual wonderland for this kind of visual language, where a single image post is followed by a seemingly endless series of animated non sequiturs.
The GIF As A Vehicle For Art & Animation
The GIF has become especially relevant to those working in the realm of pixel art, where appreciation for the raw aesthetics of early computer graphics is the rule of law. Animators like Paul Robertson, who created the graphics for the recent Scott Pilgrim game as well as his own hugely popular animated internet cult films, swear by the GIF as the prime means to deliver their gorgeously fluid mini-cartoons, which hearken back to the early days of arcade and videogame culture.
This fascination with the aesthetics of digital imperfection has perhaps given rise to the recent popularity of pixel art, indie videogame development and chiptune music. No doubt the GIF’s continued presence throughout the years has resonated throughout these subcultures and many others.
The GIF As A Banner Of Free Culture (For Now)
Perhaps the reason why so much culture has formulated around the GIF is because it’s a tool of the everyman, although it wasn’t always – In 1994, IT corporation Unisys claimed ownership of the compression algorithm used in GIF and attempted to derail anyone making software that allowed for the creation of the format. Of course this didn’t go over too well, and not only were they unsuccessful at preventing unauthorized use of the file type, but a new format, PNG, was created in response to their claims, making the now-patented GIF obsolete. Despite all this, people continued to use the GIF (the PNG lacked animation properties) and in 2006, the format was released from corporate clutches and back into the deserving hands of the public.
Now, anyone can make a GIF with just a couple of clicks, whether you’re slicing the juicy bits out of an episode of Maury or just adding some kitschy animated bling to a self-portrait, GIF is the way to go. But like most things in the tech world, the war is far from over – Unisys says on their website that they are making secretive “improvements” to the GIF which could enable them to reclaim the format in the future.
But seeing the rampant growth of the recent GIF renaissance, it’s hard to imagine that anyone will be able to wrest control of this multi-faceted format away from the people again.
Unisys may just have to…