GIFs, The Language Of The Web: Their History, Culture, and Future

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There is something about GIFs that captures our attention. They have no sound, and are low-quality . In a way, it’s little more than the digital version of a flip-book. Yet, the Internet loves using a GIF as a reaction. How did this phenomenon start, what makes it so popular, and where is it headed?

To understand GIFs, you need to understand that humour has always been at the core of their appeal. You’ve probably never heard of John Woodell, but you’ve seen his work.

That’s right: Woodell is the web developer to whom we owe the Dancing Baby GIF, arguably the first animated GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) to go viral. Back in 1996, Woodell chose a then-popular video of the “Baby Cha-Cha” 3D model to demonstrate a video-to-GIF conversion process. He emailed the animation to his colleagues, and it soon spread across the whole web.

“It’s easier to be funny with a GIF than with your own words,” Adam Pash tells MakeUseOf. Pash developed the record-your-own-GIF app And Then I Was Like. “When you type into a chatbox all day, sometimes it’s nice to have variety—it’s largely the same reason we use emoji/images/anything.”

Take, for example, the famous GIF of the clapping scene from Citizen Kane. It has been used to show actual appreciation as well as ironic applause – the context of the conversation provides meaning to the GIF. As Pash says, it works as a way to be funny. What would you rather see? Someone saying, “I really like what you said there,” or this:

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Apart from conveying reactions, GIFs are often used to explain concepts, or even to make art. GIFs are a part of the Internet’s lexicon now, legitimized by Oxford Dictionary naming it the Word of the Year in 2012.

The Technical Reason GIFs Became Popular

On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like GIFs should be such a big hit: They compress the quality of images (they support only 256 colours, compared to 16.7 million colours in JPEG), they don’t support audio, they play endlessly so you can’t “start” or “stop” them. Yet the Internet widely adopted this as a standard, in an age where superior quality formats abound. A large part of the reason is its emotional connect, which we’ll come to soon (and that’s the fun stuff!). But there’s also a technical reason.

Simen at Enthusiasms.org offers a technical explanation, and it all comes down to one of the Internet’s biggest names: Marc Andreesen, the creator of the Netscape Navigator web browser. Simen writes:

Peek inside a GIF file sometime: every animated GIF contains a reference to Netscape Navigator 2.0, a browser that has been obsolete for fifteen years. Netscape 2 introduced a slew of new features: embedded Java, JavaScript, frames. And animated GIFs.

In 1993, Andreesen created the “<img>” tag in HTML. This tag basically lets a user insert an image into a web page, which was not easy before this. According to Simen, there was debate among developers about the use of an image-specific tag, instead of a tag that encompassed all multimedia: video, audio and more. If such a tag was made back then, it would have been easier to create non-GIF video formats that worked on any browser, he argues.

But Andreesen was the developer of a popular web browser and his code worked, so soon enough, the <img> tag was widely adopted and became ubiquitous.

None of this is finger-pointing at Andreesen, of course. It’s not like he could have predicted that his one tag would lead to the rise of GIFs eventually. But Simen’s argument is that the use of separate image and video tags meant that, despite its shortcomings, GIF became the easiest non-video format to string together sequential images for a video-like effect. There are better formats like WebM, but GIF has reached mass adoption at this point.

Of course, low bandwidth usage isn’t important in today’s times, but it helps nonetheless. In a discussion at Quora, user Carlos Ribeiro raises another good point. The iPhone, and later Android phones, dropped support for Adobe Flash  once a common way to add animation to any website. The GIF was a convenient alternative — easy to create and widely supported.

Plus, its position as “more than image” and “less than video” meant it showed moving pictures without actually making people click “Play”. GIF artist Davidope told Société Perrier:

I realized that, on Tumblr, even if I shared the greatest video of all time most people wouldn’t see it because they are too lazy to start/check a video — there is tons of other content (images) next to it, that they can immediately see what it is about. I thought it would be a good idea to show animations in the good old GIF format so visitors wouldn’t have to push a play button for it to start and they can play it even on an older smartphone.

It didn’t take long for GIFs to be used as a language tool in conversations.

“The reason to use a GIF instead of video or still image is purely technical: it’s a brief looping animation that’s natively supported by most browsers,”Andy Orin, Contributions Editor at Lifehacker, tells MakeUseOf. “Simply pressing play on a video is one step too many when timing is relevant for something to be funny.”

He adds that depending on the context, GIFs can be replaced with images, following the same idea of non-click instant humour.

Pash reckons the continuous loop is key.

“For starters, still images don’t move. Video, with the exception of Vine, doesn’t autoplay and doesn’t loop. In essence, even though both video and animated GIFs provide moving images, the looping, autoplaying nature of the GIF creates a much different experience.”

The Non-Technical Reason That GIFs Became Popular

As far back as the late 90s, there was something captivating about the animated GIF. It was yet to be used to convey reactions, but there was no doubting its popularity. The spread of Woodell’s dancing baby GIF is proof enough, as well as this classic:

It’s How We Use The Internet

In its early years, web developers used GIFs because they required little bandwidth compared to videos. In the days of dial-up modems or even in early broadband, the GIF was the logical choice, which is why you saw things like the rotating “under construction” banners on websites and little animated icons, writes Stephanie Buck in Mashable.

“I’ve been using GIFs since I was on dial-up modems in the late 90s, building websites on free hosting services like Geocities and Angelfire, but those were more decorative GIFs used in the irony-free glee of an earlier time,” says Orin. “But that wasn’t really conversational. GIFs as replies or statements or comments are a relatively recent convention I think – as in the past few years – as high speed Internet has allowed them to function as instantaneous, relatively high-quality film clips, even though it’s an incredibly inefficient format.”

Buck is quick to acknowledge that even in the early days the GIF was a fun element, like the dancing banana above (which was so popular some forums made the code :banana: display it).

“Typically a GIF in conversation is used as a visual analogy to a relevant topic,” Orin adds. “Feeling overwhelmed? Here’s a cat being chased by a dozen puppies. Part of the humor – and humor is almost always the reason for using a GIF – is finding a visual analogy that is completely surprising but relevant. Maybe you’re doing a mundane task like filing expense reports, but a clip from a Japanese game show, which is completely removed from the task at hand, perfectly conveys your emotion at the moment. The phrase ‘surprising but inevitable’ comes to mind.”

Abigail Posner, Head of Strategic Planning And Agency Development at Google, considers it her job to figure out why people share these GIFs. Writing in Fast Company, she theorizes that these animated pictures and other such visual media like memes “reconnect us to an essential part of ourselves.” It’s our desire to seek newness – not necessarily new scenes, but the desire for new perspectives on things we’re already familiar with.

In Thought Catalog, Leigh Alexander explains how GIFs do this. Normally, we are inundated with visual media, often new. But a GIF that you connect with is either a universal situation you are already familiar with or some media that you have been exposed to before. The GIF takes one element of experience and highlights it; what would have been a 2-second scene in a full episode on TV now becomes the entire piece. It is a new perspective on a familiar situation, and we cherish that.

Or, as Alexander poetically puts it , “Tiny movements that would be lost in the grand landscape of a larger work become almost precious when isolated by themselves.” It also explains why a large number of popular GIFs are from late 80s and 90s cinema and TV shows – we’re re-watching something we are familiar with.

Tiny moments

The web is moving to tininess. 140 characters is how we consume written content, so why would we watch a long video for one pay-off moment? Just give us the pay-off. So when you read about Jennifer Lawrence’s fall while collecting her Oscar, you don’t need to watch the whole Academy Awards; you can just catch the GIF:

A great example of this phenomenon: the 2012 London Olympics. Several moments were shared on social media and news media, using  GIFs. For example: The Atlantic’s summary of American gymnast Gabby Douglas’s night of medals. You didn’t need to watch whole telecast; you don’t even need to go through several videos on YouTube. The looping GIFs perfectly embed into the article at just the right places, showing you every highlight.

It’s Great For Social Media

No surprise here. Posner says the joy of the journey of discovering a new perspective lies in sharing it with others, and that’s what social media is all about: sharing.

As PBS explains in the above video, Tumblr played a large part in the spread of GIFs. It was one of the first sites to support 2MB GIFs (while others restricted files to 1MB), and the “reblogging” mechanism helped satisfy our need to share. Tumblr’s TopherChris says, “Young people are driving the GIF because it enhances their online persona.”

Posner writes: “In the language of the visual web, when we share a video or an image, we’re not just sharing the object, we’re also sharing in the emotional response it creates.”

It’s A Private Medium

Video is often incomplete without audio, meaning it’s hard to watch a video in your office: the audio that comes out of your speakers is up for anyone to hear. GIFs, even with their flashing text, feel more private.

Gizmodo explains what a good GIF is all about: “A good GIF, and anything is GIF-able these days, captures just enough of a specific moment to illustrate emotion yet leaves enough out to spark your curiosity. It’s a beautiful balance of amusement and wonder.”

That pretty well sums up our fascination with these moving still pictures.

GIFs: Styles And Art

While the GIFs you usually see on the Internet are clips of videos, that’s not the only style out there. GIFs can be more than just annoying memes. Artists have explored the scope of GIFs as a new form; commercial designers have sought to push their craft; and there are other styles of GIFs to give new depth to still images.

GIFs As Art

Art evolves around mediums. When a new medium presents itself, artists are never far behind, exploring how it can change communication, stretching its limitations and thinking out of the box to show us what we can’t see. GIFs aren’t just about cats shooting lasers out of their eyes; they are a serious art form.

“We think of GIF as merely a medium, like JPEG or MOV,” Kevin Burg, GIF artist and co-creator of the Cinemagraph, tells MakeUseOf. “Artists will explore the medium and react to its constraints and exploit its strengths. The GIF has the advantage of being universally supported, so anyone with an old computer or a new tablet can see it.”

In the PBS video above, TopherChris says, “It’s uncharted territory right now, and I think really anything has the possibility, the potential to be an art form. We’ve seen people making original stuff with (GIFs). I think there are other new art forms waiting to be discovered in there that we haven’t figured out yet.”

Hungarian/German graphic designer David Szakaly, commonly known as Davidope, is perhaps the most popular GIF artist on the web. Societe Perrier says he changed the perception of the animated gif, and showed people it’s possibilities as an artistic medium.

Davidope usually makes black-and-white GIFs with an infinite loop. The process takes about 2-6 hours, on average.

“Everything has it’s end, but a looped linear animation has no beginning and no end — it is infinite,” Davidope told the online magazine. “Like a fire, a fountain or a waterfall, it’s endless, repeating patterns and motion can make me forget get about time for a while.”

You can check out all his work on his Tumblr.

Over at ArtNet, Paddy Johnson has written extensively about GIFs as an art form, and it almost serves as a mini-thesis on the subject:

Cinemagraphs

One of the most visually striking form of GIFs is the Cinemagraph. Graphics artist Kevin Burg and photographer Jamie Beck keep most of the image static, animating only one aspect of the scene. They liken it to freezing time and letting a single moment live, breathe.

“We wanted to take the ideas of a movie or video and fit them into a still image that you can see and understand very quickly, but if you keep looking there will be much more to the image,” says Burg.

On average, the process takes about a day of post-production, Burg says, because it’s important to make it seamless. “I want the motion and feeling to be perfect, and that’s really what takes the most time.”

Here’s an example:

In an interview with Time magazine, Beck explained the creative process behind this image, with Grace Coddington (creative director of Vogue) sketching at New York Fashion Week.

“It was fascinating because I was watching her sketch and everything else kind of went away,” said Beck. “Disappeared. I didn’t see anyone or anything else. Then you get to recreate that in a cinemagraph. It’s like everyone is watching her sketch the way I was watching her sketch.”

3D and Stereoscopy

With a cool optical illusion, you can create a 3D image out of any photograph. You’ve probably seen these GIFs several times, but didn’t know they were called stereograms. This particular style is named Wiggle Stereoscopy, and it’s pretty simple to make these 3D images that don’t need glasses.

What you are basically doing is creating an image for the left eye, and another for the right, then rapidly switching between the two. This creates an illusion of depth. The smoothness depends on how many images or frames you use between the left and right image. Here’s an example:

Fashion photographers Pamela Reed and Matthew Rader have been pushing the envelope with 3D stereoscopy recently, trying to see where the GIF can be taken. They are no strangers to using GIFs as an art form, but their most recent experiments are breath-taking.

In the project, called Flowers, they used ultra-HD video cameras to shoot all around a model posing in front of a green screen, such that they got 2D, 360-degree videos of the model, says Photo District News. Then, these videos were placed on computer-generated 3D environments. The result is that Rader and Reed can choose any angle or camera movement for any scenes, which would be impossible to create in real life.

The end result speaks for itself:

Finding And Making Your Own GIFs

If you want to find a reaction GIF that matches your mood, the best place to get that is probably Giphy. This dedicated search engine for animated images has one of the largest collections of GIFs on the web, and the search works pretty well. You can also log in and save GIFs for future use, as well as upload your own. Plus, there are extensions for Chrome and Firefox to make it even easier to locate the right image.

Orin swears by Giphy: “I use Giphy most of the time. How did we live without Giphy? I have a list of URLs in Evernote that are just funny GIFs, but Giphy has thankfully made it much easier to find anything. If I can’t find something on Giphy, I just Google “[phrase] gif”. Reddit is also a wellspring of original GIFs but I hesitate to admit I read Reddit.”

If Giphy doesn’t float your boat, try any of these five reaction GIF sites for when you just don’t know what to say.

As for creating your own GIF, if you have found a clip on YouTube, the easiest option is to just add the letters “gif” before “youtube” in the URL. For example:

Take “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bZkp7q19f0

and turn it to “https://www.gifyoutube.com/watch?v=9bZkp7q19f0

You will be immediately taken to GIF YouTube, where you can select the portion of the video that you want to turn into an animated image. It’s super simple.

There are plenty of other places to make memeworthy GIF animations, and in case you prefer an offline tool, you can make animated GIFs with GIMP, the free image editor.

If you want to create an original GIF with your camera, then GIFBoom gets the job done for both iPhone and Android (although there are other Android options too). On your PC or Mac, try And Then I Was Like to make GIFs with your webcam.

Is It Pronounced “GIF” or “JIF”?

Ever since its launch, the pronunciation of GIF has been a topic of much debate. Why? As if the Internet ever needed a reason to argue about something trivial. But just as people will forever debate whether Han or Greedo shot first, there is no end to this one. Here’s where things stand now.

The Oxford Dictionary, ye who crowned “GIF” king of the word in 2012, says it should be pronounced “gif” with a hard “G”. In fact, 70% of the world prefers it that way.

But that’s wrong, according to Steve Wilhite, the lead engineer at the CompuServe team that made GIFs and widely acknowledged as the father of the GIF. In 2012, he told The New York Times that it’s pronounced “jif” with a soft G, not “gif”. He even added that his team laughingly quipped, “Choosy developers choose jif.

That should have been the end of the matter, but the Internet channeled its inner Roland Barthes and disagreed that Wilhite had any right over deciding the right way to say it.

Finally, Oxford had to play mother and say everyone is right and we should all go out for ice cream. Chief editor John Simpson told The Tech Eye that either pronunciation is fine, and whichever one you use, you stick with that for both the noun and verb forms.

Where Does The GIF Go From Here?

The GIF is still around, 20 years without any improvements, because it’s convenient. Can we look forward to another 20 years?

“GIFs will likely be supported forever, but in terms of a prevalent new file format, I think utilizing video codecs like H.264 or WebM makes sense for the future,” says Burg. “If there was a very simple way to encode an H.264 so that every player knows to play it just as if it were a GIF, that would be ideal. Better color, smaller file size. More creative possibilities!”

Orin agrees: “Looping animations and short movie clips will always be around. GIFs are just used for technical reasons, in that we have enough bandwidth to use an old inefficient format. When looping MP4s (or something similarly efficient with compression) are supported everywhere, there won’t be a reason to stick with GIFs, aside from nostalgia.”

Not everyone agrees.

“I don’t think it’s a mutually exclusive situation,” Pash says. “(GIFs, emojis and such) are things people use as enhancements to conversation. There’s no reason the success of one has to mean no one can use the other.”

What’s Your Favourite GIF?

The Museum Of The Moving Image made a collection of the web’s favourite GIFs. While these feature several of the popular ones, everyone has their own favourites which probably didn’t make the cut. So go ahead, Internet: what’s your favourite GIF?

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