Though gifs have been around since 1987, the format has achieved a new prominence in the past few years, and has now become an increasingly integral part of online discourse . Given their early history, this is arguably a surprising development. Back in the 1990s, gifs tended to be brightly coloured, often garish pixel animations, and before the end of the decade, their usage had became synonymous with bad web design. Their overuse was partly responsible for the development of the phrase banner blindness, and in 1999, there was even an early Penny Arcade strip, Macromedia FlashDance, satirising the problem:
As more sophisticated image formats were developed, gifs fell out of favour, and though they remained in usage as a source of internet humour throughout the early noughties, it wasn’t until photo-based social media platforms like tumblr began to take off post-2010 that the format started to achieve its current prominence. The widespread availability of simple gif creation tools has also contributed to their ubiquity, as has the fact that, ten years on from the arrival of YouTube, it’s now extremely easy to find high-quality video of just about anything online. Like a literal equivalent to the proverbial Rule 34, if a video exists, it can – and probably will – be giffed, and given the fact that the United States House of Representatives Judiciary Committee just issued a press release consisting almost entirely of gifs, it seems fair to say that both the medium and practice has gained a traction beyond the subcultural.
But despite the now-common presence of gifs in online news articles and their widespread use as reaction images, very little seems to be being said about the profound, almost radical impact they’re having on our critical analysis of visual media. Gifs are looped videos: perpetually in motion. They show discreet, specific moments of narrative, and while the format is silent, the fact that they can be captioned or subtitled enables the preservation of dialogue. Which means, in essence, that for the first time in the history of visual media studies, we can directly compare multiple sections of multiple videos on the one screen, at the same time, in a loop, without having to wrangle multiple muted video players, assuming that was ever a viable option. Because gifs can be embedded in a piece of text, we can illustrate a digital essay on a given film or TV show by literally showing the reader the scene, or scenes, we’re describing, without requiring that they click away from the page. And because gifs are looped, we never have to stop and rewind: we can immerse ourselves in the subtleties of a given moment – the repeated sweep of a well-executed panning shot, the subtleties of an actor’s microexpressions – without additional technical distractions.
And this is significant: not just because it enables a deeper, more thorough analysis of visual media, but because it makes that analysis both overt and accessible in a way it wasn’t before. A well-constructed gifset is a thing of tremendous beauty, and the more of them I see, the more I’m convinced that we’re in the midst of an academic paradigm shift. It’s not just that gifsets let us contrast the dialogue, cinematography, composition and acting of various visual narratives side-by-side in unprecedented ways, or even the fact that anyone, potentially, can make one; it’s the that this tremendously useful ability is online-only at a time when the vast majority of academic writing, even when digitally accessible, is stuck in static, access-restricted, locked-in formats, despite the fact that most everyone else is using free blogging platforms. Technically, gifs can be inserted into PDFs, but it’s uncommon to try, difficult to achieve, and without the use of particular plugins, the end result won’t work – and as PDFs are seemingly the most common form of academic document, that presents something of an obstacle to their adoption.
Academic publishing, as an institution, is one of the most nakedly dinosauric and profit-driven industries around. Much content is peer-reviewed for free, saving publishers the expense of paying for professional editors. For books, cover designs are frequently minimalist, again saving on production costs, and in the case of journals – and despite the often exorbitant cost of subscribing to their output – contributors are unpaid. While there can be significant differences in practice from discipline to discipline and some notable exceptions regardless, generally speaking, academic publishing takes advantage of its captive audience of students and professors in order to charge sky-high prices for textbooks and journals alike, despite the comparatively low overheads involved in their creation. As such, the innovation of something that’s desperately relevant to academic critical analysis, but which is currently proliferating for free in non-academic formats, not only due to its widespread accessibility and pop cultural origins, but because academic journals haven’t yet moved to include it, is worth investigating further.
Because gifs, I would contend, are relevant to more disciplines than just film studies, which is the obvious one to mention. Arguably their greatest point of utility is their ability to magnify microexpressions: those fleeting, tiny, there-and-gone tics that often betray our deepest reactions to things, and which, for all the volumes they speak in person, can be so easily lost in other formats. While this newfound ability to study the nuanced microexpressions of actors has undeniably added to both our appreciation and interpretation of their performances, it also has significant utility when turned elsewhere. Gifs of politicians, journalists and other prominent figures abound, and are slowly but steadily changing the nature of public discourse. Not only is there something powerful in being able to capture, recycle and disseminate (for instance) Tony Abbott’s lecherous wink during a radio interview with a pension-aged sex-line worker, but distributing gifsets of political interviews or parliamentary sessions has become commonplace even beyond their countries of origin, with the captions sometimes appearing in translation. Though full episodes of The Daily Show aren’t legally available outside the USA, for instance, gifsets of its various sketches and interviews are frequently shown elsewhere, their creation and dissemination falling within the guidelines of fair use, and the same is equally true of other programmes.
That being so, it’s hardly surprising that gifsets have inspired an enormous amount of analysis, meta and commentary online, the vast majority of which exists outside of traditional academic channels. Which isn’t to say that such content lacks either academic merit or rigour, however informal the use of language; rather, it means that academic conversations are no longer happening within purely academic spaces. In fact, given the undeniable presence of both amateur and professional academics on sites like tumblr, whose digital format both enables back-and-forth discourse and the ability to site sources through links, there’s an argument to be made that the internet had lead to the creation of a new type of academic space, one as yet unmediated by academic institutions. The proliferation of gifs is just a small part of this, but as a highly visible facet of the phenomenon, it makes for an interesting point of entry into some of these larger developments.
However academia develops in the coming decades, it would be foolish to underestimate the relevance of the internet and visual media – and of the ability of pop cultural innovations to have academic applications.