On GIFs

In the latest example of how people never use technology the way you expect them to, animated GIFs are back. GIFs were prized on Web 0.5 for their low resolution (these were dialup days) and zing. Look! It’s not just a page—it’s a screen! We can make things move! And sparkle! We’re not sure what the hell else we’re supposed to do with this “World Wide Web,” but we can definitely make creepy babies dance.

GIFs never really went away—they thrived in teen/nerd/stalker hangouts like Xanga—but there was a dark period a few years back, as the last holdouts were abandoning the gaudy MySpace for the classy and efficient Facebook, when GIFs were seriously uncool. Facebook has never held truck with GIFs, and they seemed to be betting that video was the way of the future. Those of us at news publications were told that if we weren’t producing video content, we were out of it and getting farther out.

Video is still important online, but GIFs have suddenly resurged—as though digital 3D projection found itself unexpectedly competing with the zoetrope. Tumblr, a socially-oriented blogging platform, has embraced GIFs and been rewarded with exponential growth. (We’re on it.) GIF Shop, a fantastic new mobile app, allows users to create and upload animated GIFs straight from their phones.

What’s the appeal? Well, part of GIFs’ appeal is retro, like cassette tapes’. They’re lo-fi, and having been “replaced” by YouTube, they’re kind of endearingly awkward. 80s and 90s TV shows and movies are, appropriately, favorite GIFfing subjects. (Via glitterguts.)

But GIFs also have a unique quality that’s lost in longer-form videos. They’re the real-world equivalent of the living photos in Harry Potter’s universe—always moving, never changing. GIFs capture a moment in a way that a single photo can’t, but still, they capture a moment and not a minute. Watching a family video (at least, one of ours) could take hours. Watching this GIF of my nephew takes less than a second.

Of course, GIFs’ possibilities aren’t restricted to the strictly documentary. Video artist Matt Bardins posts far-out original creations at yepnope.tumblr.com.

One of the Web’s masters of pointed GIF-making is the anonymous creator of Holy Maury Mother of God, a Tumblr that takes moments from Maury Povich’s talk show and immortalizes them in endlessly looping animation. The results are alternately riotous, thought-provoking, and oddly poignant. (Read my essay on the art of Holy Maury, and my interview with the blog’s creator, in the Twin Cities Daily Planet.)

I recently covered the Pitchfork Music Festival for both the Daily Planet and The Tangential, with Becky Lang, who threw the phrase “GIFs as journalism” around a lot on our Chicago trip. Most of The Tangential’s reporting from Pitchfork took GIF form, and people dug it.

My Daily Planet coverage (forthcoming) will feature GIFs of the bands at Pitchfork; I’ve found GIF-making to be a distinctive and fun way to cover music, theater, and community events. It may not be the kind of journalism they teach at Murphy Hall, but it is journalism nonetheless. Will GIFs ever break into mainstream journalism? There are GIFs of the Twin Towers falling. Should there be?

- Jay Gabler

This post originally appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet