YouTube… a dynamic Internet invention. It is constantly evolving and changing, and yet the basic principles are still the same. YouTube is an open, non-judgemental, creative space. First created in 2005, as a video-sharing website, YouTube became a fast hit starting in 2006 and was averaging over 100 million views per day. Part of what makes YouTube so unique is that everyone on YouTube is both “creator” and audience. There is an inherent standardized style to a YouTube video. For one thing, the creator is solely responsible for what they created, be that a company, an individual, or a group. Next, is the immediate interaction between audience and creator and visa versa. The biggest “standard” for YouTube videos is the relate ability factor. Having said that, YouTube is also a random and unknowable space. While the previous three factors have become a “standard” in the videos, there is also an accidental or absurd quality to what makes a video or creator successful. “[YouTube] will never have a set type of content, there will always be a new form of entertainment popping up.”
I spent four semesters of grad school as a teaching assistant for History of Popular Music, 1950s-Present. The class had a tendency to dwell on the first thirty or so years of the proposed sixty-five-ish, causing the last weeks of the semester to get juuuuust a little compressed*, but the professor always saved the last day for his traditional farewell lecture: an invective against MP3s and YouTube compression. He would give a brief description of analog audio recordings vs digital, rail on Apple ear buds, play a variety of samples to showcase different degrees of YouTube compression, and show the hazards of wanton ripping/compression, among other things.
Of course, the end goal of this “scared straight” style presentation was really to get students thinking hard about audio fidelity. Many of them were raised listening to heavily compressed music on YouTube and/or ripped MP3s of dubious quality. But perhaps there were more important questions to pose. How did we arrive at the particular media formats that are in wide use? What is audio fidelity to the people manufacturing new types of media? Or how about, as Jonathan Sterne asks in MP3: the Meaning of a Format:
“In an age of ever-increasing bandwidth and processing power, why is there also a proliferation of lower-definition formats?”
These questions have many ways to be answered because there is no grand narrative of media formats. Formats do not simply edge closer and closer by degrees of mediation from reality. Nevertheless, we see this type of thinking all over the place. Especially in regards to branding and marketing for new formats and platforms.
Mediality and Compression
This brings us to the concept of mediality. Sterne describes this as “a quality of or pertaining to media and the complex ways in which communication technologies refer to one another in form or content.” Essentially, it means that media formats naturally cross-reference one another in a variety of ways and that each medium is shaped by a unique history that involves aspects of both technological and cultural practices, among other things. Sterne presents the 74-minute compact disc as an example; sources claim that the design and storage capacity of the CD were meant to mimic the size and portability of the then-popular cassette tape.
How exactly does this relate to the proliferation of the MP3 (and other lower-definition formats)? Well, without going into a tremendous amount of detail, the MP3 can be situated within a tradition of compression. That is, the development of ways to spread information efficiently to the widest area possible. Lossless compression involves redundant data stored in a sort of shorthand that is read by an encoder and reconstructed without any, well, loss. Lossy compression does the same thing, but also permanently cuts out information that is deemed to be of lesser importance.
This is where my old professor’s lecture comes in. Audiophiles freak out about MP3s because you are actually losing aspects of the performance (such as dynamic range), as well as occasionally introducing artifacts (such as pre- and post-echoes). Still, you can’t complain with how nice ‘n’ svelte these files are!
The Bright Side of Things
So, perhaps my professor was right about some things, but isn’t there a way to add a more positive spin to his lecture?
To again borrow from Sterner:
“Compression also allows media content to proliferate in new directions, where it might not otherwise have gone. Innovation in digital technology tends towards finding new sites, contexts, and uses for file compression, rather than eliminating them.”
There we go! Compression led to innovations like streaming on Netflix and putting annoying MP3 ringtones on our phones. Or how about the wild success of YouTubers or Twitch streamers? These new forms of broadcast content can quickly be produced on the cheap, receive feedback, and be tweaked accordingly. [Is this starting to sound like a lean startup methodology pep talk for creative types?] A high quality video that is five minutes long could easily be around 50 gigs in size, so downloading would be a chore; compression algorithms can reduce this file to a tiny fraction of this size and make it easy to stream.
The GIF also provides some wonderful examples: Reaction GIFS, cinemagraphs, and other types of GIF art (such as the output of Peekasso). In the case of the Reaction GIF, the practice became so widely adopted that Facebook now allows users to directly embed Reaction GIFs in messages—and there is even a small discovery platform that allows one to search for an appropriate GIF and view ones that are trending.
So why hasn’t the MP3 been supplanted yet? Perhaps, it can simply be attributed to people enjoying the various artifacts that appeared on the formats that were popular in their formative years. Each of these artifacts—the hiss of vinyl, the flatly compressed sound of 4-track recorder demos passed around by grunge bands, etc.—are now rich with meaning and referenced by new recordings. Why should it be any different for MP3s? Or perhaps it is the fact that MP3s are so widespread and people just don’t feel any pressure to switch to something else. This makes me think of Eppink’s history of the GIF and how he states that attempts to one-up the GIF have failed because companies often fail to understand the affordances that made the GIF successful. Could this be why people aren’t flocking to Jay-Z’s Tidal service? Why people aren’t going nuts over Neil Young’s PonoPlayer (which, judging from the list of Most Requested Resolution Upgrades, seems to attract only listeners who reject anything that doesn’t fit comfortably on a Classic Rock Commercial-Free Power Hour)? Who knows what the future may hold.
What is GIF? Similar to how Band-Aid has been genericized to mean any adhesive bandage and Kool-Aid to mean any sugary powdered drink mix, GIF has become an eponym or kind of like a for the entire genre of silent, short, and looping web animation or film. Jason Eppink says that .gifs have moved beyond a data format to “an ethos, a utility, an evolving context, a set of aesthetics… today ‘GIF’ is typically used to mean an animated GIF file or an otherwise short, silent, looping, untitled moving image.”
Therefore, when someone discusses an animated GIF, they often could be talking about an animated .svg file, .mp4 video, or anything that can produce that desired effect. This differentiation may seem pedantic but GIFs are a prime example of screen essentialism at its finest (or worst?), with many users showing no regard to the actual format that underlays this visual performance, which for clarity I will call .gif. This is similar to what Andy Baio described in “‘JIF’ is the format, ‘GIF’ is the culture” but this way we don’t have to fight over pronunciation and different spellings.
To what extent can we separate .gif and GIF? Many of the cultural and aesthetic properties are intertwined with the affordances of file format itself and detail why the genre has had such longevity. What is the key part to preserve about these objects? Does GIF the genre require different preservation than .gif the format?
As Jason Eppink detailed in “A Brief History of the GIF (So Far)” (link above), there are many genres of GIFs. They began as small animations for websites at a time when space was limited, spawning emojis and later glitter GIFs. Today there are numerous genres of GIFs and many are derived from video. For instance, Eppink curated an exhibit on the reaction GIFs, a genre used to communicate a general feeling or reaction. He described these as a form of gesture, drawing from movies, tv, and memes to better communicate feeling on the internet.
The communicative nature of these objects are on the rise as more and more social sites are integrating GIFs into their experiences natively. Facebook has a GIF option in messaging and allows GIF-like profile pictures and Twitter has added a GIF keyboard to use when tweeting. Cultural institutions have also started using GIFs to share their collections in fun ways. Clearly there is a social aspect to document here. Can sharing and creative reuse of these items foster social memory and be a tenable preservation strategy for these genres?
More than communication, this image format is also used specifically for art. One genre that often fits both categories is the smoothe or perfect GIF, or one that flawlessly repeats without a sense of break in the loop. GIF artist Sofiya Glebovna has done some research on these GIFs and determined a set of principles that apply to this genre.
- The first image must be a logical forerunner to the last image.
- There is only a limited amount transformations that one can perform on the object: circular movements, periodic movements, and disappearance.
Her examination of GIFs led her to postulate that there are different types of GIFs based on the context of how they are displayed on the screen and their function on a website but does not to delve into the file format itself.
.gif began as and still is an open format but for a time it was feared it would not remain that way. It’s openness and small file size, while still allowing animation, fed its popularity. When some users believed they could lose access to their objects due to a company asserting a patent on the compression used in .gifs, the open .png format emerged as an alternative and tried to topple .gif’s dominance. Nonetheless .gifs have remained consistently present in the internet age and are increasingly popular due to the newer GIF genres mentioned above.
Also mentioned above, social media websites are embracing GIFs more than ever and yet these companies predicate the management of these digital objects on the notion that the public will accept GIFs as an aesthetic genre rather than a specific file format (and they’re pretty much correct).
.gif purists might be alarmed with the amount that many social media sites are divesting from the beloved original format with the advent of the HTML5. Imgur converts all .gifs over 2MB into the new .gifv (made in part of .mp4 and .webm video) format it developed. Twitter converts all .gifs uploaded into the .mp4 format but place a label of “GIF” on the image when they appear in your timeline when not playing. From what I can tell, Facebook does the same but only allows embedding through linking, otherwise uploaded .gifs will become static (Facebook does retain the .gif format in messenger keyboard though). Therefore, these two different formats and compression methods are made to seem one in the same.
Similar to what Jonathan Sterne described in Format Theory about the .mp3, we see the mediality in switching to other formats or creating new ones through the maintenance of many extant .gif features while at the same time trying to minimize file size even more and establish greater control over the files.
Not to mention that this move shifts from an open to a proprietary standard, the new functionality with .mp4 brings up a key difference created in this approach: the much easier ability to control the looping. Looping of .gifs only began with the advent of the Netscape 2.0 browser but has become a cultural mainstay ever since. Does the ability to easily pause, fast forward, and rewind the moving images instead of watching a seemingly uncontrollable endless replay matter? By moving beyond the limitations of .gif files are these companies also violating a significant property of GIFs? Are they breaking the “perfect GIF” described above?
This all goes back to preserving these items. What do we, as preservationists, feel is right? I think this is a similar problem that cultural heritage professionals face consistently over what is the best file format both for longevity and for authenticity and the way closed online platforms are often a barrier to preservation. Also, how does this affect collection decisions like harvesting what’s widely shared on the web versus finding the original? What are some of the other preservation concerns you see for .gifs or GIFs?