It’s official: The animated GIF is enjoying a renaissance. Oxford Dictionaries has made “GIF” its word of the year, saying “GIF celebrated a lexical milestone in 2012, gaining traction as a verb, not just a noun.” And of course, the GIF celebrated its 25th birthday this year as well.
GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format, and animated GIFs used an 8-bit color palette, and essentially are image files that store multiple images (or frames) inside them, giving the appearance of movement.
And now, they are taking over the Web in new and old ways, and are nearly inescapable. But for all of the Tumblr blogs dedicated to animated GIFs of reality television moments, it’s an old medium. While the GIF was introduced in 1987 thanks to Compuserve, its likeness has been around for much longer. Stereographs created the original 3D images: Two images taken with stereoscope camera lenses separated by the distance of the human eye developed onto one film slide. When viewed through a stereoscope, they produced a 3D-like effect.
The New York Public Library’s Stereogranimator project is dedicated to giving this art form a place to live on. Project manager David Riordan tells me the library had some 40,000 stereographs, and that there were wildly popular with people. “Visitors always came in to look at them, and they had to use the stereoscopes here, but they are amazing to look at.”
Then the team came across a Tumblr blog that was taking the databases’s images and making them viewable online. This was the inspiration for the Stereogranimator project, which gives anyone that ability to take this historical content and make beautiful, amazing, shareable, 3D Web images.
Stereographs were one of the first transforming imaging tools of their time, and now we’re seeing its distant relative experiencing a similar evolution as a medium of the masses.
Apps like Cinemagram, 3frames, and Gifture have taken the democratization of GIFs a step further, giving users a way to create them nearly immediately with nothing more than their smartphones or a laptop and a little diligence.
Some of the results are nothing short of stunning. While Instagram might have a firm grip on the photo-sharing platform, it’s clear that there’s an appreciation and interest here — and it’s one that isn’t going away.
Part of it is their versatility: Users don’t just love to create animated GIFs, they love to consume them. Tumblr blogs like WhatShouldWeCallMe and HowDoIPutThisGently have amassed major cult followings for their tongue-in-cheek pop culture posts. Mr. Gif and Dear Gif Diary are among the many Tumblrblogs elevating the humble GIF to unforeseeable net art status.
The community rallying around net art, much of which is dedicated to reliving and re-loving all things 90s — including, of course, animated GIFs — recently blasted Rihanna and Azelia Banks for lifting their work. There’s this intense, visceral connection to these images, and it’s because the generation that is taking over Web creation has a certain emotional connection to them.
“There’s been this just … amazing confluence of trends,” Riordan tells me. “There’s obviously a sense of nostalgia about it, and net art has really embraced this medium and really exploded. And there’s this generation of people who experience the early Web and now they’re coming of age.”
“People are getting more and more familiar and reacquainted with these through social platforms and sharing tools. And being able to play with them and work with the format — that didn’t use to be available to everyone before. It used to required quite a bit of knowledge.”
But just because children of the 90s are in large part responsible for the rebirth of the animated GIF doesn’t mean they will forever live with the confines of Tumblr and Buzzfeed. This year, major publications used the medium to illustrate stories. The Atlantic turned to GIFs with its Olympics coverage, and The Guardian partnered with Tumblr artists to “live-GIF” the presidential debates.
“Tumblr had this fantastic community of people who work there or use the platform to create art, and so we wanted to find a way to get deeper into digital, and we were liveblogging the debates anyway, so we wanted to do the storytelling differently,” says The Guardian’s Adam Gabbatt, who directed and curated the project.
“My role was to choose between the GIFs they were creating, take the best ones, and bring them to our live election coverage and provide some context — to tell people why this matters.”
As you are well aware, there was plenty of material to pick from. “In the second debate, for example, Joe Biden was over the top with his reactions to Paul Ryan,” Gabbatt explains. “Most people were talking about it and it was this immediate trend. There were loads of GIFs of Biden rolling his eyes … and we were able to illustrate this immediately.”
Gabbatt tells me the audience grew with each debate, and that the reader reactions were overwhelmingly positive. “Something like this could go either way, but people seemed to embrace it.”
This effectiveness means that the animated GIF may have grown up a little and inserted itself as a reporting tool — not just something good for a momentary laugh. “It’s this fantastically visual thing and normally you’d take a picture and put it on the top of your article, but if you can actually loop a moment over and over, it’s a fantastic way to illustrate that moment.”
Part of its draw is its approachability: Almost everyone loves a good GIF, regardless of their initial interest in a story. “What we did with the live GIF project appealed to people who might not read a 2,000 word New York Times article about the debates the next day,” Gabbatt says. “But it means we also have a responsibility to add context so we’re not just laughing at picture of Mitt Romney holding a binder.”
After all, with great power comes great responsibility. Animated GIFs have become so immersive because they’re equal parts nostalgia, mashup, and current events commentator. They’re only going to become a bigger part of our digital lives as creation tools become more sophisticated; it’s not difficult to imagine an animated GIF replacing still photos regularly in major Web publications, or a platform with the pull of Instagram revolved around sharing these images.
But for now, a simple congratulations to the GIF: You truly deserved Oxford’s honor. Here’s to many more years of you slowly but surely wrapping yourself into the tapestry of the Worldwide Web.