It’s not unusual for the Olympics to see its share of dramatic comeback stories: The U.S. judo player formerly abused by her coach who went on to win gold; the British runner diagnosed with potentially fatal blood clots earlier in the year who made it to the 1,500 meter finals; the Russian volleyball team that came back after lagging two sets behind to take the gold from Brazil.
But who would have thought one of the biggest comeback stories would be the animated GIF?
First introduced in 1987, the GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) is a low quality animated image. According to Forbes contributor Matt Miller, the GIF was widely used on the early web in the ‘90s, only to fade away due to the popularity of embedded video in the early 2000s. Although embedded video appeared to seal GIF’s fate, it began a moderate recovery over the past few years, especially on graphics-oriented social media sites like Tumblr.
Even with these slight gains over the past few years, no one could have expected the GIF’s “giant coming out party” during the Olympics, as the Nieman Journalism Lab proclaimed the GIF’s surge in popularity. Suddenly, GIFs were everywhere. They were on Buzzfeed, capturing the plight of the South Korean fencer who refused to accept defeat, or highlighting “the 25 most absurd moments of the opening ceremonies.” They were on The Atlantic Wire, explaining the intricacies of a gymnastics move, and in Business Insider, poking fun at Rafalca, the Romneys’ horse.
So why are these low quality animated images from the ‘80s making a comeback, especially since we now have the technology for high resolution images and embedded videos?
The GIF seems to occupy a curious space between video and photography with noted advantages over the two. Unlike a still photograph, the moving GIF is more entertaining while offering a narrative structure and context the photograph lacks. At the same time, by boiling a sequence of video down to its most crucial frames, the GIF gets to its point faster than video.
Most importantly, the GIF is specific to the Internet in a way that photography and video are not. Both photography and video existed before the Internet, continue to function outside of the web and, consequently, have fallen prey to the web’s limitations. When confronted with the flow of the web, photography can seem still and archaic. Likewise, the web’s hypertextuality — the way we click from one thing to the next in a nonlinear fashion and go back and forth between pages — makes video’s linearity boring, its definite beginning and ending unfolding too slowly for an audience used to clicking from one thing to the next and, above all, retrieving information quickly. This problem is compounded by how long video takes to load and the time it takes to move its large file size.
In contrast, the GIF takes advantage of the Internet as a medium while adapting to its specific limitations. For one thing, the GIF seems to know the needs of an Internet audience. With an infinite amount of information a few clicks away (the consequence of which is an ever-shrinking attention span), we can watch our GIF instantly, get the highlights and move on. The GIF is the CliffNotes of video. Additionally, its small file size makes it easy to share, taking advantage of perhaps the Internet’s chief attraction: connectivity. Moreover, while the linear video seems poorly suited for a host as interactive and hypertextual as the Internet, the GIF loops. It is cyclical, not linear. We can begin watching it at any moment, and, because it loops so quickly, we can get a sense of the pattern of things.
The GIF takes advantage of the Internet as a medium in another respect — by appropriating video footage that’s already been shared. Some have argued that each GIF is a new, separate artwork from the artwork it appropriates. In a sense, the GIF treats video as a kind of readymade. The artistry is what’s done to that existing footage to make the GIF: how it’s bared down to its essential elements, what environment it’s placed in, what text (if any) accompanies it. However, GIFs often toe a thin line between appropriation and plagiarism. For the most part, this has not yet been an issue because few people are making money from GIFs. However, Miller writes that more and more people are being paid to make GIFs for advertisements.
The GIF takes advantage of the Internet as a medium in a way few artistic forms have. However, for the GIF to be taken seriously as an artistic medium, it will have to contend with the specific consequences of the web. Plagiarism, piracy and pay are not new issues to art on the Internet, but they have yet to be addressed satisfactorily. As an Internet-specific medium, the GIF is uniquely situated to do just that — and that’s a comeback story.