I make no bones about flaunting my age (mid 40s) on this blog and how that has translated into a relentless rate of technological change. However, for some reason an ancient file-format has quietly taken over the internet over the last few years: animated GIFs.
GIFs are an artefact of the 1980s. They were designed at a time when most computers had, at most, 8-bit color graphics cards. They never developed a 24 or 32-bit flavor of GIF, and then Unisys caused all sorts of trouble by trying to retroactively assert a copyright. This led to the development of the PNG format which is now realtively common, albeit larger in size than the lossy JPEG. PNG created an APNG format as a rival for animated GIFs but even today browsers have poor support for it as this test page shows. The page also demonstrates WebP, a format google invented, but also doesn’t seem to have caught on.
Animated GIFs are being primarily used today to store a second or two from an iconic movie or TV show. The benefit of using an image format rather than a video is that it can be more easily embedded into things like forums or Facebook comments. It is actually fast becoming the next leap up from emoticons.
Normally I would consider this topic too far afield for this blog, but it’s the fact that animated gifs are sourcing themselves from movies/TV that is noteworthy. I think I know why it is this is happening.
Internet presence in 2017 is still dominated by text. While it’s possible to do fullblown videochat or embed videos in many different places, text is still the core. The reasons text still dominates is that people’s interactions with the web tend to happen while multitasking with something else. You’re slacking off at your work computer or you’re tapping on the keypad while lying down watching TV. You’re usually not in a position to be seen or heard in front of a webam.
As internet discussions have attempted to supplant face-to-face chats, the limitations of text become most glaring. It’s all too easy to misread the emotional intent. The first way to enhance text was to use the following common ASCII emoticons:
- Smiley 🙂
- Wink 😉
- Tongue 😛
- Sadness 😦
Rather than having to manually type these it then became possible to select small images visually, regardless of whether they have ascii codes for them. Here is the set in Skype:
This has since expanded to emojis which act less as emotional cues and more for cutesy stand-ins for objects.
You can see here how this is fast becoming almost a new language or alphabet specifically for the internet.
Now let’s return to animated GIFs for a moment…
Because of the limited color palette they were not very well suited for playing back segments of movies/TV. They were usually just animated graphic art instead.
There were a few isolated examples of full-motion-video GIFs but they were pretty crude, like the infamous dancing baby from Ally McBeal, which used Hooked on a Feeling long before Guardians of the Galaxy.
The limitations of the 8-bit palette are glaringly obvious in this example.
Nevertheless, things like the dancing baby were a harbinger of the future.
YTMND also employed animated gifs, but usually as more of a slow slideshow synchronized to music. Here’s an example.
I can’t really pinpoint the moment the internet exploded with film/TV snippets, but not that long ago I started seeing professional online news outlets use them to sort of appear “hip” and DIY, despite the unprofessional look of all the 8-bit dithering. This actually got picked up back in 2013 by an article in the New York Times. Here is a gizmodo article that uses an animated gif as a feature image.
A while back I read an article aimed at women that followed a very formulaic approach of trying to sort of riff on this or that situation that women find themselves in. Basically just a listicle, but peppered with images of women in movies in TV experiencing those moments of petty everyday drama. For instance, “bad hair day” nets this loop from The Princess Diaries:
The fact is that the visual arts (film and TV) are constructed from a series of moments, many of which function purely as visual storytelling, like silent films did 100 years ago.
If you look closely at these clips, what they really do is function as units of body-language, and that body-language is usually meant to convey a mood in a way that is much more effective than text alone.
Since people have been exposed to so much media, their minds are teaming with these isolated moments. Now, thanks to google image search or an increasing number of apps (like Whatsapp) that let you search for and insert these clips, people are constructing meaning by stringing them together into a collage.
I can’t help but relate this to the Darmok episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where an entire culture never spoke directly, but by merely relating things via metaphor. It’s no surprise that I find myself doing this often, because I’m a pop culture nut, but we’re now seeing the rest of society follow suit.
There are many ways to express a mood. What kind of clip you select helps to paint a portrait of your likes and dislikes, or even your personality. This is especially true in internet forums, where posters are often mocking or insulting other posters.
The most common situation one runs into is when a poster thinks the previous post said something stupid.
Here’s one of Gary Coleman I like, because it’s retro. It speaks to me. It gets the point across while maintaining a little whimsy.
Maybe something a bit nerdier? A little more exasperation?
A little more snarky millenial woman with attitude?
And if you just want to laugh at someone’s misfortune, this one from Planet of the Apes can’t be beat.
The choice is endless, and it can be addicting. But like any fad, it can be overused.
Imagine if you were at the table trying to have a conversation and the other person never spoke, just rolled his eyes and made funny faces in reaction to what you said.
The intention of the funny face goes beyond compensating for the limitations of text and shifts over to pure attention-whoring (aka trolling). And that is a common refrain in this blog, that the 21st century represents the constant seeking of attention.
Wow, that’s a lot of GIFs. I now feel somehow…dirty.
Can I ever make up for it?
I guess not.
Well, you don’t have to get angry.
You’re schooling me, GIF? This is such obnoxious behavior. Why don’t you grow up?
I can’t end this blog post like this. Please, can’t we just get along???
Come on. What do you say?