GIFs and the Human Condition

Although the GIF celebrated its 25th birthday last June, some are already predicting its death. Zach Seward of Quartz and The Atlantic recently claimed that […]

Although the GIF celebrated its 25th birthday last June, some are already predicting its death. Zach Seward of Quartz and The Atlantic recently claimed that GIFs—those animated images responsible for making BuzzFeed so entertaining—are seeing their twilight. An endangered species in the jungle of Internet image formats, to put it more dramatically. According to the HTTP Archive and the W3C, GIFs comprise only 29% of the total images available on the Internet, down more than 10 percentage points from just two years ago. Seward’s data include an infographic illustrating the convergence of the GIF’s decline with the PNG’s uptick in terms of dissemination and popularity on the Internet. In an ominous prediction, Seward writes, “GIFs could practically disappear from the web by the end of this decade.”

But is that really the case? All this bemoaning of the GIF’s diminished use as an image format comes paradoxically on the heels of Vine’s pretty impressive popularity among social media users. Essentially a video mode of tweeting, the new social app allows users to upload video footage of themselves and create 6-second looping images (GIFs, in a nutshell) to share with their friends. Released just over a week ago by Twitter, the service has already received significant attention from the press. The BBC even said that the video aggregations on the platform had a “mesmeric quality.” In this way, the Internet seems to be fighting back at the possibility of the the GIF’s extinction—even with porn.

Why? Research on meme culture predominantly points to the value of cultural participation among Internet users. The idea is that self-created mass media, coupled with forms of easy communication, empowers amateur production and has cultural and social (and possibly even economic) value. Academics have coined various phrases for this type of participatory culture. Jonathan Zittrain at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center calls it the “generativity” of the Internet made possible by its adaptable technologies and interfaces. In his study on viral videos on YouTube, Queensland media professor Jean Burgess names this mode of self-production “vernacular creativity.” Evidence suggests that the culture surrounding audience participation and user-generated content—a culture off of which GIF production feeds—will only be further perpetuated as web 2.0 technologies evolve. In the age of Tumblr et al., how else are we supposed to express the human condition?

But we don’t necessarily need the academy and professional researchers to tell us that our basic human preoccupations include food, sex, fashion, and adorable animals. Popular cultural critics have already documented the basic human drives that Vine and “GIF culture” help to extend onto different media. As Willa Paskin notes on Salon, “Left to our own devices and given anything from a conversation to a brand new technology to fill, we will, without fail, fill it with edibles, the outdoors — including but not limited to snowstorms, sunsets, sunrises, climates that contain palm trees, and beaches — pets and private parts.”

Clearly, the GIF is living on, alive and well, and on multiple web devices and platforms. Although Seward provides the data to back up his forecasting of the GIF’s demise, the Internet says otherwise. Slate’s Will Oremus even recently discovered a website that is unabashedly riding the coattails of Vine’s release, extracting all the cat videos on Vine for easy access. After all, as CNN’s Doug Gross asks, “would it really be the Internet without cats?”

About Qichen Zhang

Qichen is a master's candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, a Balliol College member, and the current Online Editor for Bang! Blogs. She thinks "Impact" font and cat memes have singlehandedly changed the historical canon of western culture. Read more at