The gif or graphics interchange format, which is ubiquitous in modern internet conversations, actually turned 30 this year. Arwa Haider tracks its meteoric rise.

In an age of 24/7 information, where there’s pressure to stand out, and a general expectation that we should react to news in real time, we need to say something as quickly and emphatically as possible – so we say it with gifs.

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The gif (graphics interchange format) has become a ubiquitous fixture of modern media, in various forms, whether it’s a flashy brand logo, or a festive e-card. More than anything, it’s now synonymous with the ‘reaction gif’: a fleeting animated clip, usually on a mesmerising auto-play loop, posted to convey a specific emotion. These gifs might feature film or music stars, cartoons, or cats – and they embody a range of expressions that have become everyday patter, thanks to social media: the ‘eye roll’, the ‘facepalm’, the ‘mic drop’. These are potent little shots of melodrama; gifs are inherently camp. They also seem brightly millennial – so it might come as a surprise that the gif actually turned 30 this year.

Back in June 1987, the gif was originally launched by a CompuServe team led by US software writer Steve Wilhite. The format used the Lempel-Ziv-Welch lossless data compression technique, meaning that files (and notably colour visuals here) could be reduced in size without impairing their quality. This proved to be a game-changer in an era of crushingly slow modem connections; early website designs used gifs liberally, not least for zany ‘under construction’ graphics. Tech wars were waged over the years, including a mid-90s challenge from the png (portable network graphics) format. But as digital culture flourished, and devices became increasingly mobile, the gif’s personalised possibilities took off, too.

Social networking/discussion sites such as Tumblr and Reddit, along with image hosting service Imgur, have played a key role in making gifs a mass shared experience. In 2012, ‘gif’ was named Oxford Dictionaries’ USA Word of The Year. If you’ve posted a gif since, though, you’ve almost certainly used Giphy. This New York-based company was founded as a search engine in 2013, by Alex Chung and Jace Cooke. Giphy is now a 70-strong team, including its website, apps, and distinctly user-friendly integrated platforms on Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp. Currently valued at $300million (£233million), it reportedly had 200 million daily active users in July 2017.

“It’s not about technological development; it’s about human adoption,” argues Dr Sarah Thornton, a San Francisco-based sociologist of culture, and author of books including the best-selling Seven Days in The Art World and 33 Artists in 3 Acts. “User-experiential design has become the premium heart of technology companies. The user interface is key; it has to be just a few swipes of the hand.” 

Gifs are lingua franca - they are so simple that a child can understand them - Sarah Thornton

In a medium where words might be limited, the emotional impact of gifs should be similarly direct: “They’re lingua franca,” says Thornton. “They’re not determined by linguistic boundaries, and they are so simple that a child can understand them.”

Gifs do have an incredibly multi-generational scope, in their themes (which are as likely to feature vintage clips of Brando or Monroe as Beyoncé, or  80s-flavoured memes), and their users. My four-year-old niece might not yet be writing to her sixty-something grandmother, but they can freely message each other in gifs. Justin Garbett, the Senior Editor of Reaction Gif at Giphy, describes his role as “the millennial’s dream job”, but also expounds the far-reaching appeal of gifs:

“Gifs add humour to our conversations, but they can also be a unique dialect between two specific people,” says Garbett. “Emojis and text communicate very specific things; with gifs, you can add further colour to that meaning. A ‘thumbs-up’ emoji is pretty straight-forward, but a ‘thumbs-up’ gif can be excited, sarcastic, reassuring or hesitant. You can use an actor, a pop-culture reference, a cute animal, anything. Your vocabulary is limitless, and 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.”

The perfect gif

British journalist and novelist Justin Myers, aka The Guyliner, is a celebrated and incisive writer who has earned a rep for using gifs creatively, notably in his online dating columns. Myers admits that cherry-picking the right gifs can add hours to writing a feature; he’s also positive about why they’ve captured our popular imagination:

“It's about joining in, and entertaining,” says Myers. “Not everybody has 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.

"Still, gifs let us get straight to the point because they're so immediate, so wonderfully evocative. It’s easier to get someone onside to identify with us, if we use a gif that represents us – even though it features someone else. They’re almost impossible to misread. A sarcastic tone in a tweet might be misconstrued, but a gif of Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development rolling her eyes at what you just said doesn't take the Enigma machine to decipher.” 

Such immediate expressions are not without complexity, however. In August, 2017, Teen Vogue published an online op-ed piece, We Need To Talk About Digital Blackface In Reaction GIFs, in which writer Lauren Michele Jackson questioned the widespread use of black figures in gifs as a kind of modern minstrelsy: posted by non-black users to reinforce racist caricatures. It’s certainly an important argument; mainstream media has historically side-lined black cultures while co-opting black style and slang. Yet gif communication is undeniably multi-layered, too; reaction gifs are deliberately over the top, often using famous faces to capture universal emotions, or to reveal hidden nuances. The 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 concedes that “a good gif is a good gif”, though he is also reflective: “It might sound like an overreaction, but just like any form of communication, gif usage comes with responsibility,” he says. “Are you reinforcing stereotypes, marginalising someone or revealing unpleasant prejudices? It all has to be considered.”

Like any populist form, gifs are also often dismissed as ‘throwaway’. When Myers recently introduced gifs to an online feature for The Guardian newspaper, the response was mixed. “We think gifs are mainstream, but they actually have a long way to go,” he says. The response from the art world has also been ambivalent, even though gif art has technically been around since 1987; the Tate Britain gallery humorously used gifs to brings its 1840s collection to life, and contemporary artists using gifs include LA-based Eric Yahnker, whose 2017 work The Long Goodbye eulogises Obama’s famous ‘mic drop’ statement. 

“There’s a tension between the digital and the analogue,” says Thornton. “Art with a capital ‘A’ is a physical experience. One of the reasons for the popularity of art museums is the physical experience; you see things in a gallery that have a texture and scale, it’s visceral, you physically interact with them. gifs and jpegs may help to sell art, but people really want to see the whole thing.”

It’s their strangely old-school quality, reminiscent of silent movies, or even a zoetrope, that should ensure they endure

There are numerous reasons why a gif might go viral – Barnett highlights qualities such as relatability, timeliness and originality, as well as breaking the fourth wall (“it feels like the action is being directed right at the recipient”). Ultimately, though, it’s their strangely old-school quality, reminiscent of silent movies, or even a zoetrope, that should ensure they endure – or at least, date more appealingly than “hi-tech” CGI like the terrifying Dancing Baby (1996).

"They tap into our thirst for nostalgia, and for showing off our knowledge of pop culture,” says Myers. “Their message can be brought bang up-to-date, especially now it's easy to customise them. One of my favourite gifs features Joan Collins as Dynasty’s Alexis producing a paper from her blouse and waving it in triumph. The accompanying dialogue was originally "I have the papers to prove it"; you'll often see it repurposed with the very modern 'I have the receipts'." 

Gifs reflect “the atomisation of information culture”, according to Thornton.  “Everyone nowadays is multi-tasking, juggling conversations on different devices,” she says. “Gifs have a pace that fits into a frenetic time.”

Within seconds, these compressed visuals can leave a lasting impression – and speak volumes about us, too. 

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