Here are six lessons from, a one-day symposium in New York that attempted to “unpack the history, popular culture, and social impact of GIFs”
1. How to pronounce GIF
The one debate that’s been around since the Graphic Interchange Format was introduced by internet service provider CompuServe in 1987 is how to pronounce GIF. The accepted and most common way is with a hard G (as in “gift”), but some people – including the symposium’s co-organiser– insist on a soft G pronunciation. He actually has the support of the GIF’s inventor Steve Wilhite, who says to sound like popular US peanut butter brand Jif.
2. GIFs are better than words
For, associate curator of digital media at the in New York, a large part of the GIF’s success comes down to its ability to express both nonverbal and non-textual communication. “For most of the history of humanity we have been an oral culture, before making the shift to text,” he says. With communication on the internet so heavily based around the written word he sees the GIF as allowing the quick, immediate, emotional human communication that can be so hard to express in text. “GIFs are the gestures of the internet” he says, pointing to the huge phenomenon of the “reaction GIF” – short, looped animations of (usually) people or animals non-verbally responding to questions or events. Funny, cutting and instantaneous, reaction GIFs attempt to convey the emotions and social clues that are such an important part of face-to-face communication, but are lost when talking through the keyboard.
3. The revolution will be GIFed
According to Columbian digital artist, the GIF has become an important tool for online protest and activism. As well as having an immediate visual impact, they’re quick and easy not just to create, but to share and spread across networks. She also points to how hard they can be for repressive regimes to detect and track – to date they can’t be read by bots or algorithms looking for keywords, and so they provide an effective way of slipping information past online censors.
4. GIFs keep the network running
Although we associate GIFs chiefly with social media and online art, the symposium’s co-organiserof the New York University Tisch School of the Arts pointed out how for a long time they were an important part of internet infrastructure. One of their earliest uses was to create eye-catching “banner ads”, one of the first forms of the online advertising.
Small, 1px-by-1px images embedded in email newsletters can also tell the sender when the email has been opened. Every time a user looks at that email, the GIF needs to be downloaded from the server to be displayed, thus registering as a hit on the server’s analytical software. The technique provides important demographic data to businesses, and because these GIFs are usually the same colour as their email background, they remain invisible.
5. Restrictions have made GIFers more creative
For, co founder of – which prints physical moving prints of GIFs – technical restrictions have been one of the most interesting factors to shape them as an art form. For many years Tumblr, arguably the platform that propelled GIFs to where they are now, had a 1-megabyte upload limit, forcing GIF creators to find new ways to use colour and animation. These restrictions forced artists to explore both their technical tools and their creativity.
Tumblr later increased its limit to 3 megabytes, and to combat spam GIFs that were being used to fool ad-revenue networks, they also brought in minimum dimension restrictions. This had a devastating effect on a small but popular community of artists who made very small animations. Sites such aswere forced to shut down temporarily until a work-around could be found.
6. GIFs are big business
In February, the search engine Giphy, shining a new light on the business of making animated GIFs. While Giphy’s $300 million valuation points to the seemingly unstoppable popularity of the format, for Hwang and Canadian GIF artist it’s a worrying development. Not only is Giphy seen as sanitising and commodifying the GIF and taking it away from its anarchic roots, but integration into Facebook and Twitter threatens to undermine the GIF’s specialness as a format.
GIFs uploaded to either platform are actually converted into video files, and in effect remain GIFS by name alone. The reason for this, says Hwang, is that the big social media platforms don’t want you to share content outside their walled gardens. For Mills, too, the beauty of GIFs is that they could be easily saved to your own computer and shared anywhere. “The worst thing that can happen to GIFs” she says, “is that they stop being shareable.”
What We Talk About When We Talk About GIFs was held at the NYU Centre for the Humanities on 19 February
More on these topics: