What does the sloth from Zootopia, President Barack Obama and a bear waving its paw all have in common one might wonder? These three were named “most popular 2016-2017” under the category of the most zeitgeisty of digital media: animated images or GIFS. Since their creation nearly 30 years ago, these looping images have walked a rocky path to fame, going from repudiated to ubiquitous back and again. Whether you like them or whether you denounce their infantilizing impact on language, it’s impossible to watch media whether phone or on a big screen without seeing them on the news, on social media, or even in office Slack rooms.
Thanks to these humble mini videos, no emotions are too small or big to capture in GIF form.
Steve Wilhite, developer of the GIF, and his team at CompuServe in San Francisco had a problem to solve: how to make a gadget display media while also saving memory. It was 1988, four years before the emergence of the World Wide Web when users who wished to transfer files or access emails did so with subscriptions from companies like CompuServe.
Then as it is even now, the primary problem was space. Wilhite found a way to do so using a compression algorithm combined with image parameters like the number of available colors which were limited to 256 to decrease file size. His new creation could be used to exchange images between computers while preserving digital space. He called his discovery the Graphics Interchange Format. The GIF was born.
Initially, GIFs were used almost exclusively for still images. When developers took to the World Wide Web in 1991, they mostly used still images. The first color picture online was regularly in the format of a GIF.
Social media sites such as Reddit and Tumblr, along with numerous image hosting services such as Imgur, have played an important role in making gifs famous hence a mass shared experience. In 2012, ‘gif’ was crowned as Oxford Dictionaries Word of The Year. Many people accustomed to sung gifs regularly are familiar with Giphy. This New York-based company was de-facto founded as a visual search engine in 2013, by A. Chung and J. Cooke. Giphy is now a distinctly user-friendly integrated platform that collaborates with apple messages, Twitter, Facebook, and Whatsapp. Currently valued at $300million, it reportedly has 200 million daily active users, a number which is ever increasing.
The GIF is not a tale of technological development, it is a symbol of human adoption as reflected in our practices around it. In an age where user experimental design has become a premium force at the heart of tech companies, the r of Reaction Gif at Giphy describes his position as “a millennial’s dream job”, but also explains the far-reaching appeal of gifs:
“Gifs add humor to our conversations, but they can also serve as a unique dialect among specific people,” says Garbett.
Emojis and text communicate very specific things; with gifs, you can add further emotion and color to that meaning. A thumbs-up emoji is very direct in its meaning, but a ‘thumbs-up’ gif can be sarcastic, excited, reassuring, or even hesitant. You can use a cute animal, an actor, a pop culture reference,e or anything. Your vocabulary while using gifs is very vast, and the best thing is you can convey a lot with very little effort. Gifs are also self-contained and go just about anywhere: text messages, social media posts, blog entries, you name it.
Justin Myers, is a famous blogger who has earned a reputation for using his gifs skillfully, notably on his online dating columns. Myers has admitted that often cherry-picking the perfect gifs can add hours to writing something; he’s also positive about why they’ve captured the public’s popular imagination:
“It’s about joining in and being entertaining,” claims Myers. “Not all have the confidence to crack a joke. Gifs level out the playing field a little; anyone can be part of the conversation or move it forward. The exception would be overuse, especially of a newer gif that goes viral.”
Gifs allow us to get straight to the point because they’re very immediate, and also quite evocative. It’s much easier to get someone onside to identify or relate with us if we use a gif that showcases our emotion – even though it possibly features someone else. They are quite impossible to misread. A sarcastic tone in a tweet might often be misconstrued, but a gif of Lucille from Arrested Development rolling her eyes at your statement or text doesn’t take a computer machine to decipher.
Such immediate expressions are not absent of complexity, however. In August 2017, Teen Vogue released an online article, We Need To Talk About the Digital Blackface In Reaction GIFs, in which Lauren Michele Jackson, the writer, questioned the widespread use of black figures in gifs as a kind of minstrelsy: posted often by non-black users to reinforce racist ideologies. It’s a very important argument; mainstream media has historically side-lined black cultures whilst opting and using black style and slang. Yet gif communication is multi-layered, too; reaction gifs are deliberately over the top to hype feeling or emotion in an attempt to grasp for humor, often using famous figures like actors or politicians to capture universal emotions or to even reveal hidden nuances. This array of ‘trending’ gifs on any search engine can be giddying – but they work best when they’re powered by empathy, connecting with whoever we are.
Myers says that “a good gif is a good gif” “Hahaha, it may sound like an overreaction, but just like any form of communication, gif usage comes with responsibility,” he says. “Are you marginalizing someone, reinforcing stereotypes, or revealing unpleasant prejudices? It all needs to be considered.”
Like any famed media form, gifs are also often categorized as ‘throwaways’. When Myers introduced gifs to his online feature for The Guardian newspaper, the response from his audience was mixed. “We believe gifs are mainstream, but in reality, they have a long way to go,” he says. The response from the art world has also been relatively ambivalent, even though gif art has been in the business since around 1988; the Tate gallery in Britain used gifs to bring its 1800s art collection to life to humor its visitors, and even contemporary artists are using gifs in their work like LA-based E. Yahnker, whose 2017 work ‘Long Goodbye’ eulogizes President Obama’s famous ‘mic drop’ statement.
There are many reasons why a gif might go viral. Qualities like relatability, originality, timelessness, as well as breaking the fourth wall (“when it feels like the action is being directed right at the receiver”). Ultimately, though, it’s their strangely grainy, saturated, and old-school video quality, reminiscent of silent movies that ensure they endure through the digital age as a popular form of communication effectively tapping into our thirst for nostalgia and showing off our knowledge of modern-day culture. Because gifs are easily customized, it is easy for them to keep up to date with present-day pop culture references and news.
Gifs effectively reflect the atomization of communication in our digital age. Everyone is multi-tasking, juggling different conversations on multiple gadgets, devices, and gifs help us maintain a pace that fits communication into a frenetic time.
Within moments, these little compressed videos leaveeverlastingting impression – and speak volumes about us too, how we perceive our world, and our daily interactions…