Every outdated format has its cult. In the case of vinyl LPs or Polaroid film, the cults are substantial, but even cassettes, Laserdiscs, and Minidiscs have their own collectors, proponents, and preservationists. All of these people might, to some degree, regard their pet formats as orphans—under-loved and that much more lovable for it—of technology's ceaseless forward march. As the march heads further and further into digital territory, though, a question arises: Can a similar kind of love attach to outdated online formats, which briefly saturated our daily lives but can't be handled, sought out at garage sales, and proudly displayed on a shelf? In the case of the GIF, at least, the answer is yes.
GIFs (the name stands for graphics interchange format and can be pronounced with either a hard or soft G) began life in the mid-'80s, image files so efficiently compressed that sluggish Internet connections (which is to say, every connection back then) could download them speedily. When most people use the term GIF today, however, they mean it as shorthand for animated GIFs. Animated GIFs are synonymous with the Internet's mid-'90s, pre-Flash era, when individuals and major corporations alike festooned Web sites with flickering borders, banners, and graphics, all playing on tight, endless loops. More recently, animated GIFs became key chintzy building blocks in the chaotic, almost instantly passé visual architecture of MySpace user pages. Among Mark Zuckerberg's less controversial moves is that he's shunned animated GIFs from Facebook user pages, like a school principal banning "flashy and/or inappropriate" clothing from classrooms.
Despite and perhaps partially because of their retro, déclassé smack, a GIF renaissance is underway. Sites like Señor GIF (by the people who brought us LolCat emporium I Can Has Cheezburger?), GIF Party, and Sweet GIFs are part of a current boomlet in online GIF galleries. Services like Gickr have popped up, allowing users to make their own GIFs with a few clicks. The music video for MIA's recent single "XXXO" was a tribute to animated GIFs at their tackiest. (Her record label also employs an in-house GIF-maker, Jaime Martínez.) And GIFs have lately become a staple of virtual water-cooler talk: "Is there a GIF of Liz Lemon high-fiving herself?" (There is.) "Someone please get me a GIF of that insane Joan Holloway shot from last night. You know the one." (Totally.)
With broadband connections and high-definition YouTube and Hulu clips as prevalent as they are, why do people want to watch these relatively grainy, endlessly looping little videos? Part of the answer is that animated GIFs—soundless, coarsely textured, and powerless to describe complex color—appeal to an imperfection fetish like the one columnist Rob Walker recently discerned in the vogue for photographic technologies that simulate the degraded look of Super 8 film and Holga cameras. But the present-day GIF love goes beyond aesthetics and nostalgia. Animated GIFs aren't just throwbacks—they're uniquely suited to some very contemporary modes of cultural consumption, and they perform distinct functions that other formats can't.
One such function becomes clear after just a few minutes spent poking around Señor GIF. Many of the GIFs on display at the site are built around the payoff moments of Did you see that?-style viral videos. These GIFs are structured like jokes, with the barest minimum of set-up: A man on a bicycle coasts miraculously through a violent three-car accident; two dolphins arc graciously from the ocean's surface—until a clumsy third dolphin arcs directly into the second; a man pushes a stalled van off of train tracks right before a train blasts past. There is an appealing economy to these GIFs. They get to the point instantaneously, and at the exact moment when one feels the impulse to rewind and watch the climax again, the loop restarts right where it should. In the two minutes it might take me to load a viral video and watch it in full, I can watch the money shots of 15 different viral videos. Yes, we're talking about decadent levels of impatience, inanity, and time-wasting here, but GIFs allow us to waste less time online—or, rather, to waste it more efficiently.
Another function of animated GIFs has to do less with consuming new information and more with reliving and exulting in shared experiences, where zero setup is needed because a familiarity with context is assumed on the part of viewers. I'm thinking specifically of the way that GIFs have augmented rituals of fandom. GIFs figure frequently into Twitter discussions of TV shows and online episode-recaps: After that guy on Mad Men got his foot run over by a lawnmower, Vulture published a post titled "The MadMen Animated GIF You've All Been Waiting For." To take another example, I love that moment in Anchorman when Brian Fantana shows off his Sex Panther cologne to Ron Burgundy. Instead of knowingly quoting the dialogue from that moment with my likeminded friends, I can quote the moment itself, posting a GIF version on my blog or embedding it in my message-board signature. Like an enhanced bumper sticker or T-shirt, the GIF offers a pithy, punchy means for self-expression.
Some GIF makers go a step further and add their own Photoshopped effects to animated GIFs. Here, two urinals pop up on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, turning William T. Riker into a peeping tom. Here, Neo and Morpheus from The Matrix face off in a fierce origami competition. A hero of GIF Photoshopping is a New Orleans-based sports fan named Terrance Donnels, who, under the handle LSUFreek, has gained notoriety for his athletics-world piss-takes: Here, a bruised Tiger Woods wears a golf club around his head and takes a high heel to the face.
Not all GIFs are inane—some are transfixingly useless. There's a category of what you might call GIF art, where the value is purely aesthetic. Sweet GIFs is full of undulating twee GIF tapestries. The appeal of this GIF, in which Mad Men's Sally Draper falls face-first on to a floor, then flies up, then falls again, over and over, is hard to nail down, but it's more than just a mean-spirited blooper—the illusion of a body jerking up and down repeatedly is creepily hypnotic. (It reminds me a bit of a 1999 piece by the video artist Paul Pfeiffer, "The Pure Products Go Crazy," in which Tom Cruise flails and writhes, face down and in his underwear, on a couch—the iconic Risky Business dance routine edited, looped, and denatured. I wish I could find a GIF online, but here's a still.) And the images in Jaime Martínez's 2009 GIF series evoke both 3-D photographs and those old holographic Sportsflics baseball cards. An outdated format resurrecting dead ones: Let's see a Minidisc do that.