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Why GIFs Became the Sweetheart of the Internet


Is it too early to crown the GIF the internet star of 2013? Though the format has been in use since the early days of websites, there has been a proliferation of GIF use among young consumers of late that has pushed the once lowly image file into the spotlight. What is it about the GIF format that has captured the hearts of hoards of Tumblr users, internet commenters, and viral bloggers?

For readers who aren’t familiar with the GIF, they are short, endlessly-looped video files that appear to play a few seconds of action on eternal replay. The New Republic wrote an extensive history of the medium and its rise from 90s junk animation to art form. Today, GIFs have become an integral part of the way internet users (often led by Gen Y) talk to one another. They appear as reactions to blog articles, are created and shared by fan communities on Tumblr and elsewhere to celebrate moments in TV and movies, are emailed as exclamations and emotional outbursts. In short, they have become the second language of the internet.

So why GIFs, and why now? Millennials, always a very image-reliant generation, have continued to gravitate towards visual communication. With the strengthening popularity of Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, and Snapchat, we could almost see them reaching a tipping point where visuals actually usurp text communication in common use. When you are a group who communicates by majority in visuals, those visuals have to evolve in order to fully capture the emotion you are trying to convey. (We saw a similar evolution in the simple emoticon, which began as a finite combination of punctuations and have become a legion of animated faces and objects stored on your phone for easy access and hieroglyphic-esque messaging.) Layer on top of this the fact that Millennials have also become accustomed to immediate gratification in almost every facet of life, especially entertainment. GIFs are immediate, buffer-free storytelling. The GIF has come full circle to become the best way to visually express yourself in a seconds—pictures on steroids.

Another important note in the rise of GIFs is the relative freedom involved in their share-ability. Invented as a way to condense moving files in order to share them online, the very origin of the format has made them perfect for the internet as it currently exists: a marketplace of viral and meme content that is meant to be passed on. The copyright issues that surround sharing video are also often ignored when it comes to GIFs, perhaps because of their sheer numbers, as it would be almost impossible for source owners to find and take down the massive amounts that have been created.

The popularity of GIFs has begun to move them into mainstream reporting. Websites are using the GIF as a tutorial form, in TV episode recaps, to report on candid moments in politics and sports, and to tell stories, just to name a few ways the GIF has begun to dominate online. Their use will most likely not wane anytime soon. Consumer-friendly GIF-making apps have flooded the market and the recent rise of Vine (Twitter’s latest network in which users share looped video instead of text) only points to the conclusion that GIFs will continue to be integrated into the way we communicate both online and elsewhere.

What is only beginning to be tapped into is the potential use of the format for incredibly Millennial-friendly marketing. Photographe Jamie Beck has gained a following on Tumblr and elsewhere partially based on the use GIFs in a beautiful style of images she calls the Cinemagraph. These fashion (or food, or landscape) photos appear static at the start, but an isolated movement within the frame captures your eye and brings the images to life. Like all GIFs, they are mesmerizing, and signify what could be the future of advertisements: images that are more than images, but, thanks to the GIF, moving moments. After looking at these fluid and captivating moments-in-time in motion, static images are almost startling to look at. You begin to expect to see movement everywhere.

For young consumers this could be a rising expectation. Flat images could become boring, networks like Instagram might have to add moving image features, advertisements that don’t hypnotize with subtle motion may be ignored. For now, the GIF is an important fixture of communication, both for young consumers, internet users, and the brands that want to speak their language.