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Summary:

Once a punchline to jokes about bad web design, the animated GIF has made a comeback. From TV recaps to Funny or Die, the once-obsolete image format has become a vital way of sharing moments online, escaping the meme subculture to hit the mainstream.

animated GIF of cat

If your first time on the Internet predated the year 2004, then the thought of animated GIFs might inspire extreme nostalgia, transporting you to a time of terrible GeoCities-hosted websites or eye-gouging MySpace profiles — image-heavy, poorly designed pages that would send pretty much any browser into cardiac arrest, all because some amateur designer wanted to add some sparkle. And the animated GIF was that sparkle: Multiple frames combined to create basic animation, adding some life to the page.

However, things online have changed since then. GeoCities is dead, MySpace is dying, and the animated GIF, initially reappropriated by the “cool” kids on sites and communities devoted to Internet culture, may be making a serious comeback. Not as a way to give your Buffy fan page some extra flair, though; instead, the animated GIF has become a simple solution for sharing moments of action online. Simpler, in fact, than an embedded video.

Animated GIFs can be found on pop culture blogs and in online art galleries; they are used for film coverage and fashion week recaps. Their invasion of web culture is pretty much complete.

Max Silvestri, a writer who creates animated GIFs for his Eater.com coverage of the reality series Top Chef, does so not because they offer a way to get around potential copyright issues, but because they’re eye-catching. “Embedded videos are easy to ignore. Or you watch them once and forget them. Internet content is constantly fighting for the attention of the reader, and I think animated GIFs demand it,” he said via email.

Carla on "Top Chef," via Eater.com

When Funny or Die partnered up with James Van Der Beek for a series of viral stunts dubbed Van Der Week, animated GIFs were immediately a key part of its strategy because Van Der Beek was already a star in the GIF world, thanks to the crying Dawson GIF.

The subsequent Vandermemes site, which launched with about a dozen new GIFs featuring Van Der Beek, was so popular that Funny or Die asked Van Der Beek to come back to the studio and shoot 20 to 30 more. Accordingly, Funny or Die has continued experimenting with GIFs in addition to its viral video content, a move that’s paid off for them in page views.

According to FOD homepage editor Darryl Gudmundson via email, a subsequent project mashing up footage of Justin Bieber getting shot to death with classic films “became somewhat of a game for our editors,” eventually getting over 400,000 views — in one day. A Saturday.

“GIFs offer a much wider audience than video because they can be posted anywhere. People can use them as a way to express themselves in a comedic way,” Gudmundson said.

It’s not hard to pinpoint at least one reason why the animated GIF has been reborn in Internet culture: In 1995, according to the Georgia Institute of Technology, the average internet connection speed was 24 kbps. Today, things are a lot faster. Thus, while GIFs do tend to be pretty bulky — a random sampling I did suggested that file sizes average around 400-500 KB, with more complex images exceeding one MB — they don’t choke browsers the way they used to.

Justin Bieber vs. Thom York, via FOD's Justin Bieber Gets Shot.

But another factor, according to Urlesque Senior Editor Nick Douglas, is that they’re now also easier to make. While Adobe Photoshop is still the primary tool used by folks like Funny or Die to create animated GIFs, there are now many online solutions that allow users to create GIFs without loading any software.

“A meme spreads faster when you make it easier for normal net users to participate,” Douglas said via email. “I Can Has Cheezburger made LOLcats explode by giving people a simple tool to make them. Memegenerator made advice animals bigger. The Rage Comic editor made ragetoons bigger. Having a web tool that turns a video into an animated GIF really helped the genre.”

The modern use of animated GIFs no longer sucks up processing power, and they’re easier to create and spread than a video clip. They also never stop, adding an eerily captivating element to their usage. With video, there’s a play button that you press; there’s a beginning and end to what you watch. The animated GIF, meanwhile, draws you in again and again, preserving the most random of moments for what feels like forever.

Said Silvestri, “The repetition of a small moment, watched again and again at an unusual speeds, brings tiny details into relief in a way I think you’d absolutely miss if you just watched a video of the same moment once. Also, they are funny and hypnotic.”

Picture courtesy of Flickr user Joel Telling.

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  1. Great article! How do you think the mobile device development will effect the future of moving GIFs? Will it finally kill them off or wil it explode even more?

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    1. That is a GREAT question; unfortunately, I’m not a mobile expert so I don’t know how great an answer I can give you. As mobile speeds increase, though, it seems likely that GIFs will be able to proliferate on those devices.

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  2. I also enjoyed this thanks. I found this tumblr which makes wonderful gifs from wonderful movies. http://iwdrm.tumblr.com/

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