From the December 2010 issue of Dazed & Confused


GIFs are streaming, ceaseless, and simple. They can be sexi, they can be RLLY CUTE, and sometimes, they can be totally controversial. Once referred to by artist and online blogger Tom Moody as “ubiquitous mini-cinema”, the frantic icons we’ve come to “LOL” and “WTF” over are, in short, a colour-sourced graphic window into our collective post-Google attention span. Through GIFs, perhaps we can synthesise our sociological process of identification into indelible seconds-long avatars that stain the mind with merely a facial expression, a gesture, a wipe-out, or maybe even a slap.

“One that comes to mind is the Snooki punch GIF,” says artist and self-proclaimed Internet expert Parker Ito, of the infamous moment in American television when Jersey Shore’s pint-sized starlet, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi took a smack in the mouth on camera, in a dive bar. “This whole idea that MTV censored that from the show, but then this one second GIF was circulated through the web for millions to see… I think there is something interesting going on there.”

Animated GIF images are likely an everyday presence in your life, which, for many of us, blurs the lines between reality and “vreality” on an accelerated day-to-day basis. The spangled shorthand reading “Thanks 4 the add!” that artificially glitters like a temporary tattoo in pixelated RGB might best be known as MySpace spam on many a Tumblr, Blogger, LiveJournal, or socially-networked comment system inhabiting a cyber-sphere near you. To the astute code-wielding digital graffitis, however, they are simply referred to as GIFs (pronounced “jiff” or “ghiff” depending upon your proclivity… the debate still rages online). The three letters G-I-F stand for Graphics Interchanged Format.

In essence, a GIF is a low-quality image file that supports up to 8 bits per pixel and is often rendered in animation supporting up to 256 pixels per frame. While many believe that animated GIFs reached their prominence during the 20th century’s web 1.0 era, the GIF was actually introduced by the CompuServe company in 1987, which means that the file extension pre-dates the advent of the Internet by at least two years.

Fast-forward a little over 20 years and these simple animations have globally altered the consciousness and infiltrated the art of a generation. From Ally McBeal’s dancing baby to the infamous “Paris Hilton”—a strobing sequence of photos in which Hilton gives the same enigmatic Mona Lisa smile, staring straight into the lens—the trajectory of GIFs is one that has seen a sudden growth, due to the popularity of Tumblrs and new sites that make sharing viral media as easy as clicking a “re-blog” button.

Parker Ito is one of many artists of our generation who believes that these manic emblems are a result of art’s new favorite medium: the give-and-take space of the Internet. “If it’s not online, it doesn’t exist,” he says. “There is a great community of artists, and it’s easy to connect with them because they can understand the native language. The problem is that the art world is run by an older generation, and they really haven’t caught up with the Internet yet.”

Riding the same wavelength is 24-year-old New York artist Ryder Ripps, who co-founded the GIF-heavy torrent of visual sharespace that is known as dump.fm. “Around mid-2009, I was on Tumblr way more than I should have been,” says Ripps, via online chat. “I was watching this rapid exchange of images and notes and participating in its madness for no greater good than the cathartic feeling of being ‘understood’, appreciating and meeting people.” Bored by the pace of communication and craving something even more instantaneous, Ripps came up with the basis for what would become his now popular site.

On dump.fm, site users log in much like they would have a chat room during the ’90s. However, rather than communicate through text, “dumpers” upload or link to images in order to create graphic-based expressions to provoke a visual trending repartee with their fellow site-dwellers. The result is, therefore, a relentless stream of visual conversation. It sounds like something any conglomerate worth their market budget would pay millions for. Instead, everything is free.

“The greatest art transcends the object,” Ripps explains. “It’s all about the art of the thing. When collectors drop cash on art they aren’t buying the physical thing—most modern art can be replicated pretty easily—they are buying a stock certificate that denotes their ownership in a piece of an idea. Expensive art pieces are just famous ideas that have greatly affected the masses. What attracts me to Internet art is the fact that it is intrinsically all about the idea, there is nothing to own except an idea. Furthermore, what’s fascinating to me is that the Internet has the potential to prove that the creator of the idea is what is of value, not the physical work.”

What began as a simple image-based chat algorithm has now become a veritable hub for everything GIF. Visitors can stop by to pick up new GIFs, GIF-makers have their creations stored in their profile, and the reactionary real-time networking approach challenges users to create new, more impressive contributions. The site itself gets upward of 1,800 hits a day, with a staggering 26-minute retention rate. Translation: users spend, on average, a half-hour on the site. Have GIFs replaced television? What are they so exceedingly popular now?

Blingee.com is a site that has created a business by allowing users to create their own GIFs, many of which include or come in the form of sparkly text. Blingee president Michael Karp attributes the format’s viral trajectory to social networking. “I think the role of animated .GIFs has evolved as the web has matured,” he says. “With the growth of social networks during this decade, there have been increasing opportunities for interconnectedness and self-expression. Animated GIFs function as one key way for users to uniquely express themselves.”

Ito takes a less general stance. “I think it has to do with Web 1.0 nostalgia,” he says of the current GIF wave washing over the online landscape. “The real GIF heavy-hitters are all in their twenties. Maybe GIFs remind them of their early experiences on the web. GIFs are naive and they’re pure. They’re kind of like little Internet haikus. They’re also extremely easy to make, load fast, and are effective.”

Dump.fm’s creators agree. “I don’t think GIF stuff on the Internet at this point is ironic or anything,” Ripps offers. “I think it’s honest. Many of us grew up around this trashy default aesthetic. Now it exemplifies digital experience, as opposed to using digital experience to exemplify reality. This has become reality.”

Blingee’s president believes that animations will continue online, ad nauseum, into the future. “GIFs can be viewed as a new medium between still images and video—one that is evolving as the limits are explored and the tools are enhanced. As long as people are using computers, animation will exist and continue to thrive as an expressive design form.”

However, online video culture wouldn’t be a now-generation phenomenon if it wasn’t subject to the same waning relevance as, say, fashion or culture. Perhaps the GIF, much like many early-Internet modes of communicating, will evaporate into oblivion. “One of the greatest things about digital media is the ability to throw it out,” Ripps concludes. “It’s like Buddhist sand sculpture or something. What matters is how you get there; surfing the Internet, downloading torrents, consuming YouTube, updating your Twitter, adding pictures to Facebook and posting shit to dump.fm has no end. It’s not something you achieve or win, finish or covet. It’s about the process and always trying to get better, be happier, and have more friends.”