It seems that there isn’t much on the Internet that can’t be summed up in a GIF. Miss something on TV? Don’t worry, we GIFed the best parts. Want to respond to a news story or a friend’s announcement on social media? Words are so passé—just GIF it, man. You can even make your own. GIFs are great, right?
Wrong—sort of. The ubiquity of GIFs belies their awful technical constraints. GIFs are old—the format was invented in 1987—and with age, comes a lot of baggage. Surely there are better options 27 years later—why haven’t they caught on? And what would it take for that to happen?
"When you look at the history of the GIF and its emergence in the late '80s, one thing that's worth pointing out is that the GIF as a media format is still relatively new," says David Hayes, head of Canvas, a creative think tank at Tumblr, which hosts millions, if not billions of GIFs. "Especially when you compare it to the 50 plus-year reigns of prior formats like photography or film," he says, the GIF is still new as a medium of expression, if not especially new as a technical format.
Hayes says there are in fact two kinds of GIFs—GIF the medium and GIF the file format. GIFs, like Kleenex or Post-its, have crossed the ubiquity threshold into becoming the accepted name for an entire product category—brief, soundless, eternally looping animations in this case. What’s more, according to Hayes, newer formats like .GFY or .APNG aren’t guaranteed to be adopted by the public simply because they’re more efficient. Hayes stresses that thus far, these formats "remain evolutions of the .GIF, not catalysts for an entirely new direction."
"Media formats—just like ideas—tend to grow and thrive depending on the degree to which they can be manipulated and extended by the users," says Hayes. "This requires perhaps the greatest condition for adoption, and that's openness." However, GIFs weren't always so open.
After its invention by CompuServe employee Steve Wilhite, the GIF format saw a surge in popularity when Netscape Navigator 2.0 became the first major browser to support them. But the format had a problem: It used a patented compression algorithm. Over time, licensing fees were paid and companies bought out, and in the early 2000s, the GIF was finally in the public domain. Just in time for the web apps of the Web 2.0 era. Then came YouTube and an abundance of web media—and the GIF’s second shot at the big time.
"In the late 2000s, there's so much video, there's so much content to be used and interpreted, that this medium can condense into something that was a little more manageable," says digital artist Kevin Burg of the GIF’s second wind. "It took on this whole way of expressing or re-expressing all this video content that people had access to—because of YouTube, really—and that was really the only format that made sense."
From Burg’s perspective, much of what enabled the GIF’s modern ubiquity wasn’t just the fact that it was widely supported, but that a platform arose to collect and share them—Tumblr. "Once people started seeing content like this and communicating in this way, it really just blew up." Burg says.
Tumblr site What Should We Call Me is often credited with opening the floodgates, popularizing the use of GIFs as conversational shorthand, but other things were happening too, further cementing the GIF in the media landscape. Kevin Burg is actually responsible for one of them.
Together with his partner, photographer Jamie Beck, Burg is one half of Ann Street Studio and co-creator of the Cinemagraph. They’re sort of like the GIFs you know, but carefully crafted to restrict animation to certain aspects of an image. It’s what Beck and Burg call "the infinite moment."
"We started creating Cinemagraphs because we felt video has a tougher time on the web—for what we're doing," Burg says. To him, it’s a recurring thread that runs through everyone who’s working in the GIF medium. "Everything I've seen has really been reactionary to video… I don't feel like there's a whole bunch more that can come from GIFs, it's hitting some sort of critical mass, I think."
To Burg, the answer to a GIF successor lies somewhere in forthcoming advancements in HTML5 and mobile platforms—but the heir to the GIF throne won’t come about because it’s more efficient, but because it’s more expressive.
"It is like a whole new medium. Cinemagraphs is a whole new thing. People have understood, with the web, we have images, we have video—people understand what to do with that," Burg said. "But this kind of in-between thing is a very new phenomenon."
It seems then, that a more efficient file format will not replace the GIF on the Internet simply because the Internet does not care. At least, not while there are more memes to start, more culture to digest and share, or more room for strange experimentation to continue.
Genie Alfonzo is Tumblr’s media coordinator, and someone who is very plugged in to the network’s creative community. According to Alfonzo, the Tumblr-verse won’t be running out of strange new ways to implement GIFs anytime soon.
"One recent subculture that I've seen is creators adding sound to the GIFs, and personalizing it to not only fit their own community but also different fandoms," Alfonzo says. "People can use the sound to make the GIFs mean a little bit more than just the silent movement."
Take, for example, this GIF compilation in conjunction with the Benny Hill theme. Or this Kardashian GIF set to M.I.A.’s "Bad Girls." Or Patrick the Starfish riding a seahorse in sync with The Doors’ "Riders on the Storm."
"I think that the opportunities with GIFs are still untapped," says Alfonzo. "GIF creators and artists are [still] trying to break into the GIF community for a chance to express themselves... I think that there's a lot that the GIF can still offer for the time being."