The Eponymous G.I.F.

guy on jeopardy answering "what is gif?"

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.

Igor saying "It's pronounced I-gor"
Actually, .gif is the name of format, GIF is the monster it created

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?

The Aesthetic


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.

supahot1 supahotbarack supahotham

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.

  1. The first image must be a logical forerunner to the last image.
  2. There is only a limited amount transformations that one can perform on the object: circular movements, periodic movements, and disappearance.
From GIF artist Cindy Suen
A smoothe GIF by artist Cindy Suen

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.

The Format

.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. 

fbgif_example twgif_example

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?

4 Replies to “The Eponymous G.I.F.”

  1. Very interesting about the recent alterations and encroachments on the file format, I hadn’t realized how many other file types were actually in play!

    I think one consideration, especially with older, perhaps ‘classic’ .gifs, is one we’ve run into before – what were the additional software and hardware limitations? what image drivers did most computers have at the time the .gif was created? Can we accurately date these files rather than hope they’re not more recent creations – what kind of metadata does the file hold?

  2. Eppink gets into what makes a viable gif specifically for Tumblr – they’re darker, for example. I happen to think those platform-influenced qualities are as important to capture as getting down to how formats are encoded. GIFs-the-culture don’t just float out there on their own, so how they morph in response to the affordances of different platforms and formats matters.

    Although: +1 to Sarah’s comment. I also appreciate your breaking down the differences.

    In preservation terms, the qualities we’d want from a format would depend on the rest of the preservation strategy, I think. Does it make sense to think about access and preservation copies for GIFs? With a strategy built around sharing, would you want a durable format that can maintain whatever qualities are deemed significant, even through a lot of wear and tear? Or, is that wear and tear the stuff of authenticity? Trying to keep a shareable gif pristine seems too close to a “storage” approach per Rinehart & Ippolito. Maybe trying to store a .gif for all time is counter to the spirit of GIF-the-culture.

    (At this point I waste 20 min trying to find a “How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?” singing nuns gif. Ugh, never mind.)

  3. I am intrigued by the subtle difference in how .gif file is rendered depending on the choice of a web browser. (Jason Eppink directs us to consult this blog post that compares five main web browsers: Screen essentialism has been criticized by media studies scholars who value more materialistic approach. But if we wish to document/preserve a contemporary norm such as “GIF Sound,” it seems the role of a screen (or, rather, web browsers) needs to be analyzed more closely. (Somewhat similar approach to that of Bogost and Montfort in their “Racing the Beam.”) Especially if we wish to reconstruct the generative experience of a GIF Sound, we need a method that is somewhere between screen essentialism/emulation & platform studies. GIF Sound, as I come to know, plays a .gif file and a YouTube audio synchronically. (You can have a look at the recently up-voted Reddit’s annual GIF Sound winner from here: GIF Sound seems glitch prone to me, and poses an interesting challenge for us. For instance, the YouTube video of a GIF Sound shouldn’t start with an ad; and while the YouTube audio can be paused, the GIF animation cannot. If we were to save a .gif file and a video file separately and reconstruct a GIF Sound for, say, a museum exhibition, curatorial concerns involve the setting of a browser.

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