Inside the GIF-Industrial Complex

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THE INTERNET FEBRUARY 19, 2013

Inside the GIF-Industrial Complex How the animated image file took over the Internet

One weekend afternoon in September, Mike Konczal sat down at his computer to research a blog post. Another miserable jobs report had restarted the debate about what, if anything, the Federal Reserve should do to help unemployed Americans find a job. Konczal, a Roosevelt Institute think tanker specializing in economics, wanted to write about it.

But he knew he couldn’t do it the way the rest of the media had, a stultifying mix of acronyms and technical terms. “Even the people who wanted to learn about it could just not learn that way,” Konczal told me. The most important news is almost always the most arcane. Like anyone who’s ever tried to write about the economy for a mass audience, Konczal was frustrated with that paradox. How do you make something impossibly confusing entirely comprehensible?

He had an idea: You explain it with GIFs.

GIFs, for the uninitiated, are animated image files that play from beginning to end, then snap back to the beginning and begin anew, ad infinitum. Sometimes they’re art, sometimes they’re clips of TV shows, sometimes they’re ads, but they’re always entrancing. Especially when explaining economic policy.

Konczal spent that weekend afternoon researching GIFs. Pages and pages of them scrolled by. “I had a mental outline of what I wanted to cover,” Konczal says. “I’d find one for unemployment,” and block it off, and say, “Yeah, that’s perfect.”

What he assembled was an economic treatise unlike any other. Guiding the reader through the history of the Fed’s monetary policy, and its potential future actions, Konczal uses GIFs taken from Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video, "Game of Thrones," "Napoleon Dynamite," "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "Parks and Recreation," "the Jerry Springer Show," "Glee," "Saturday Night Live," "30 Rock," Titanic, a Kardashian show (unclear which), Harry Potter, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video, "Full House," Anchorman, Mean Girls, Bridesmaids, several famous YouTube videos, and a handful of other places. The GIFs punctuated the piece instead of wonky charts, and they shaped Konczal’s writing. One moment he’s talking about Ben Bernanke, the next he’s showing his reader an animated loop of Ron Burgundy. “Is Bernanke all like this inside his heart?:,” Konczal wrote. And then came this GIF:


The post, like nearly everything involving GIFs these days, proved remarkably successful. More than 56,000 people clicked on “The Complete Guide To America's Jobs Crisis And The Failure Of Monetary Policy Using Animated Gifs” at Business Insider, where Konczal originally posted it. When combined with the traffic at Konczal’s personal site, he says more than 100,000 people saw it in total. Not bad for a post that includes the term “nominal gross domestic product.”

“I rarely get offers to pitch a specific story outside my narrow field of science and economics,” Konczal told me. But within 36 hours of the monetary policy piece, an email arrived asking if Konczal would do another GIF post, about energy subsidies, for an environmental site. “I was like, I don’t want to do more of these, but it’s kind of free money.”

What started as an Internet trifle had become a marketable skill. Hypnotizing amidst a Web of distraction, the GIF has evolved from an obscure file format to an art movement to a pageview crutch. What was once a retro rebuke to the busy commercialization of the Web has in some ways become a part of it. The GIF renaissance was beautiful until it wasn’t. 

 

Why GIFs, and why now? How did a humble file format that had been largely forgotten reemerge as the web’s definitive aesthetic? The Oxford American Dictionary named GIF its 2012 word of the year; a GIF art competition was held at Miami Art Week, and it’s being judged by Michael Stipe; the Guardian live-GIFed the presidential debates, as if that’s a thing. Across a web filled with ephemera, content creators are turning to a medium that’s infinite: they’re turning to the GIF.

The GIF started as a solution to a problem: how best to share images online? In 1987, Steve Wilhite created an image file format, the 87a (later renamed the Graphical Interchange Format) that could compress data to help it squeak through narrowband modems.1 Over the next few years, the format would evolve to the one to have the capabilities of the one we know now: an endless loop, a limited color palette, and a file that would just work—no plugins required.

With all that in place, the GIF quickly became known for its best feature: it could move. The GIF allowed for multiple frames to be packed into the same file, and then those frames could be played in sequence. This created a sense of something permanent within the file; something that seemed to go on even after the file was closed. It was a Schrodinger’s Cat for the Web era. It didn’t matter whether you were looking at it or not: the GIF was always moving, even when it wasn’t.

By the mid-90’s, GIFs littered the Internet. They were largely trash. The images were rudimentary, just a few frames of animation so the screechy modems that were loading them wouldn’t become overwhelmed.

Three hundred and twenty-two of these GIFs are currently on display at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, where Assistant Curator of Digital Media Jason Eppink mounted an installation to rescue the proto-GIFs from the dustbin of history. All of the GIFs are versions of the “Under Construction” warnings that were strewn across in-development Geocities pages.2 But as the installation says, “Eventually, though, these images littered so many abandoned websites that their presence became something of a joke.” Next to that write-up, a pot-bellied man in a construction hat holds a pickaxe. His crotch bulges over, and over, and over again.

I couldn’t stop staring.

 

GIFs went to ground for several years as the Web became a more buttoned-up place, dominated by startups, social networks, and web video. GIFs weren’t entirely gone—MySpace’s brief ascendance proved as much—but they were insulated in niche corners of the web, where artists and message-board power users talked amongst themselves, reminiscing of a Web gone by. GIFs and their choppy frame rates were a nostalgic totem. But nostalgia is only palatable once enough years have slipped by from the heyday. For a while, GIFs were only passé.

In 2007, Tumblr changed all that. “I don’t think Tumblr owes its success to GIFs,” Christopher Price, Tumblr’s editorial director, says. But GIFs certainly owe their recent success to Tumblr.3 Tumblr’s mix of blog and social network made GIFs easy to share, and surrounded them with clean designs that made those old GeoCities pages look like the sties they were. It helped that in the world at large, retro became chic and downmarket became upmarket. Things didn’t have to be fancy to be popular, they just needed to be cool. Increasingly, cool, just meant homespun.

Thus began the artisan GIF movement. As Tumblr grew—it now has over 83 million blogs, and, according to Quantcast, is one of the top-10 visited sites in the country—so did the GIF community inside of it. Gone were the jerky, cartoonish animations of Geocities. In their place were illustrations, photographs, and visualizations that were as complex as they were beautiful.4

There are the demented collages of zbags, the abstracted psychadelica of ozneo, the 8-bit stylings of lulinternet, the throbbing mathematical models of patakk and intothecontinuum, the post-modern ouroboros of rrrrrrrroll, among many, many others.

Then there’s Mr. GIF, a hugely popular text- and photo-GIF Tumblr. The domain of Jimmy Repeat and Mark Portillo, two buddies who used to work together at MTV, Mr. GIF is home to original GIFs that are shimmering, flexing photographs, as if the user, sitting at his computer, is tilting a holograph back and forth.5 They look like this:

There’s a depth that can’t be had from traditional photographs; it feels both familiar and different. The eye stares at it, trying to make sense of what’s going on—how could there be depth in a two-dimensional image? And then the GIF just keeps going and going and going, drawing the onlooker away from whatever else awaits in that Twitter stream and the twenty other tabs beside it. “You have to watch it play out. When it plays out you can watch it again. It takes care of that click for you,” Repeat says. GIFs, unlike much of the rest of the visual Web, are opt-out, not opt-in.

The high-art world has begun to take notice. Aside from the Museum of the Moving Image installation, there was also an exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, Born in 1987: The Animated GIF. Its curator, Katrina Sluis, told me that “the arrival of the image as a hybrid bastardized remix-appropriated image shared over networks is a really interesting part of what photography has become.”

But why go to a museum when you could see all of these GIFs at home? “What does a museum do?” Sluis asked rhetorically. “It bestows cultural authority on things.” 6 The GIF, as an art form, is no longer under construction.

 

 

But GIFs aren’t always original art. Sometimes they’re the bastardized remix-appropriated image shared over networks that Sluis was talking about. Sometimes they’re mash-ups of video clips, and sometimes they’re not even mash-ups—they’re just repackaged video.

Giampaolo Bianconi, writing in Rhizome, calls this last category “frame-grab GIFs” because they’re little more than stolen video frames. “Unlike other GIF types, frame-capture GIFs plainly collect and endlessly repeat a single pop cultural moment from movies, TV shows, sporting events, political occasions, newscasts, cartoons, or even video games,” writes Bianconi. This is the kind of GIF that Mike Konczal used for his monetary policy post.

Frame-grab GIFs are the Web’s cotton candy—light, fluffy, never filling, but leaving the consumer feeling a bit ill if consumed in too large a quantity. Increasingly, media organizations are adopting the frame-grab GIF as a way to cater to the lowest common denominator of reader. Everybody likes moving images, and, as TV recaps have proved, everybody likes reliving things they’ve already watched.

These GIFs are strewn across the web the way “under construction” GIFs used to sprout in Geocities. Except this time being a GIF-maker is a job. Buzzfeed can sometimes seem like it is GIFs and little else; Vulture just started GIF-capping television shows; Columbia Journalism Review runs an ask-the-editor advice column laden with frame-grab GIFs; Deadspin recaps NFL games with a GIF highlight reel; the Atlantic Wire covered the Olympics with GIF breakdowns of the various athletic feats.7 After Marco Rubio’s gulping State of the Union response, there was a chorus among the Web obsessed: Somebody GIF that.

Belinda Butar Butar is one of these frame-grab GIF-makers. A 22 year-old Texan, she works for Grantland, ESPN’s literate sports and pop culture site, on a part-time basis, pumping out GIFs most often for Grantland’s staff roundtables. Depending on the requests, she’ll find a video feed of whatever it is she needs, use a program to scrape the frames, assemble the GIF in Photoshop, and then pass the GIF on to Grantland. “People would rather wait to see a GIF load than an actual video,” Butar Butar says. Her job is a simple one, but increasingly a necessary one.

But it’s far from the GIF artist’s technique. Jimmy Repeat, part of the Mr. GIF duo, says, “A lot of people don’t understand the beauty,” adding, in the voice of the cynical frame-grabber: “Oh, I’ll just chop up the video and put it online and people will eat it up because GIFs are hot.”

As media organizations scramble to figure out how to attract eyes and keep them on the page, they’ve turned to a medium from which readers can’t look away. Its adoption amongst journalists was, in retrospect, inevitable. As journalism just becomes another piece of content on the web—no different, really, than a Tumblr post or an amateur YouTube video—the habits of the successful amateur have been annexed by the professional. GIFs = virality; virality = traffic; traffic = monetization. The GIF, long a bastion of innocence, has been industrialized.

 

 

No better proof of that than in the way corporations have adopted the GIF. HBO started a Tumblr to promote the Season 2 premiere of Girls, and filled it with the kind of frame-grab GIFs that Girls fans were already making on their own. It’s a crowd-sourced GIF Tumblr: Fans make the GIFs, and HBO’s team makes the headline to go along with it. That’s how we get this post, “When Girls Get Paid,” which is nothing more than a GIF of Hannah Horvath dancing, originally uploaded by Tumblr user arniewest. (Copyrights are not exactly a concern for GIF makers.)

Nine West, Calvin Klein, and American Apparel have all integrated GIFs into their Tumblr pages as well. For them the GIF’s purpose is twofold. First, they get to speak the lingua franca of Tumblr, proving to customers they know what’s what. And two, the hypnotic quality GIF serves to make customers stare at the product (and the writhing models) for more than just a second. A static image would slide on by, but a GIF? A GIF demands attention.

Elsewhere, the fashion industry has begat a whole new type of GIF: the cinemagraph, named after Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg’s company of the same name. Cinemagraph GIFs are as composed and gauzy as any other fashion photograph, but there’s a seamless piece of movement somewhere in the frame while the rest of the image stays motionless. In one, a model’s hair blows. In another, a high heel stubs out a cigarette.8 It is art masquerading as an ad masquerading as a GIF.

Mark Portillo, the other Mr. GIF partner, is concerned. “These people in suits are maybe using it for money and that’s it. I don’t know if it’s going to be the death of it.”

But the death of what, exactly? The GIF as an art form has never had one set purpose. Its flexibility has always been its greatest attribute. “I love mentioning that the GIF as a technology is 25 years old,” Christopher Price, the Tumblr editorial director, told me. “How much of the technology do we even use today that’s 25 years old, especially on the Internet?” The GIF is far too infinite to just up and die.

So, what’s next?  “Last year was the year of the GIF. This year is the year where more and more civilians make GIFs,” Price says. And he’s right: GIF programs are now legion. There’s Cinemagram, GIFBoom, GIF Brewery, GIF Animator, and others. They all try and democratize the GIF-making process, circumventing the somewhat complicated process that the pros use by dumbing down the controls. The GIF is now open for all.

Perhaps the most high profile GIF-making app is Vine, a new program that lets people record six seconds worth of video on their phones, but doesn’t force those six seconds to be contiguous. The vines load automatically, play infinitely, and are mute by default. The catch? Vine doesn’t make GIFs. It makes repeating video files that happen to look just like them.9 In an industrialized economy, there’s no greater confirmation of a product’s dominance than when it has its own knock-offs.

Oh, and Vine’s creator? A company with over 1,400 employees and a near-$10 billion valuation: Twitter. The GIF, long a shelter from the cacophony of the Web, is now a tangential part of it. On the Internet, purity doesn’t last long—25 years is impressive enough.


 

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1

For the record, the acronym is pronounced ‘jif’—as in ‘be there in a jiffy, once I’m done watching this giant gif on Geocities’—though most go with the (incorrect) hard ‘g.’

2

A Geocities explanation for the Millennials among you: a network of websites as ugly as MySpace, but with more self-expression. 

3

Not Tumblr alone, of course. On Reddit, for example, there are two different subforums dedicated to GIFs; they have nearly 540,000 subscribers between them.

4

Interestingly, in the last two years, the number of GIFs on the Web has actually declined significantly, as Zachary Seward first reported. And yet GIFs seem like they’ve exploded in visibility. Less supply, but more cachet? That’s the hallmark of an artisanal product.

5

Repeat declined to step outside his pseudonym. “I want my last name to be a mystery.”

6

The Gallery recently hosted an exhibition on cat photography, as well.

7

In disclosure, I’ve contributed (non-GIF content) to several of those sites.

8

Through its representative, Digital Brand Architects, Cinemagraphs declined comment for this piece.

9

Within the month of Vine’s launch, there was already a Vine-to-GIF converter circulating the Web.

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