The lightning quick, moving image format known as the animated “gif,” short for “graphics interchange format,” has taken over the internet. Everywhere you click, there is a new gif waiting to be viewed. From hilarious loops of someone slipping endlessly on a patch of ice to a grumpy cat attacking a vacuum cleaner, gifs are being used as a comedic medium. The gif obsession doesn’t end there. Gifs are also used to communicate various emotions, and the so-called “reaction gif” has overtaken text and comment thread communication. A gif of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes character on BBC slyly smiling with a caption reading, “The game is afoot,” to a gif of Olivia Pope from ABC’s Scandal marching triumphantly down the halls of the White House, snapshots such as these from popular culture, specifically pop media, express the precise feelings of the sharer much better than the one-dimensional, flat words that comprise a typical text message.
And, it looks like the gif craze is here to stay. Virtually every dictionary has opted to include the word in its most recent edition, and some have even weighed in on one of the biggest debates surrounding the gif- how the word is pronounced. With most random individuals surveyed asserting that the word gif is pronounced with a hard “g” as in the word “game,” the creators of the gif format insist that the filetype is pronounced with a “g” sound making the word identical to a popular peanut butter brand. Dictionaries have not necessarily adopted this as the final word on the matter, and most include both pronunciations.
Whether you pronounce gif as “gift” without the “t” or as “jif,” the story behind the gif’s rise to popularity is nothing less than astounding. The gif file format was created in the mid-90s by the brains behind the internet company Compuserve. The file allowed individual images to be strung together and displayed in a rapid manner to create a moving image while maintaining a compressed file size that allowed it to be quickly downloaded and displayed on the painfully slow modems available at the time. Gifs were exciting to early internet users, and simple gifs showing spinning globes, animated mailboxes, and even dancing bananas were popular on early user-created websites.
The gif phenomena exploded with the growth of social media. When the popular social media platform MySpace entered the scene and began to allow gif headers to be displayed on individual pages, gif banners became an essential manifestation of personal style. From ever-sparkling rainbow glitter headers to headers showing it raining pizza, these quirky styles allowed users to feature a graphic representation of their personality on their page.
Even though MySpace is long gone, and technology has developed by leaps and bounds, gifs have changed very little. They are still characterized by a single image format, and contrary to popular belief, are not small video clips. True, some Frankenstein gif/video hybrid file types are being developed, but a traditional gif still maintains this original file design. Gifs can be used to show individual images, however, other file types, such as jpeg or png which allow larger, clearer images to be displayed, have relegated the gif to the world of animation.
Aiding in the growth of the gif is the willingness of current social media platforms to adopt and integrate the file format. In 2015 Facebook added gif support so that users could post gifs on their walls and see gifs posted by others without having to click through to a link. Twitter, Tumblr, Tinder, and other platforms are getting on board, too. Even the latest iPhone updates have integrated gif keyboards into the text messaging feature. There are countless sites hosting and curating gifs, but perhaps the most well known is Giphy. Giphy is a virtual encyclopedia/library/storage facility for every gif imaginable. As the chosen host for Twitter’s gif capability, and widely available and integrated with a variety of other platforms and devices, Giphy is now valued at over $300 million.
As a student of the arts, there is little doubt that you appreciate a well-designed, well-used gif. However, you may never have considered that you could use gifs as a tool in both your professional life and your life as a student. As small and seemingly insignificant as a gif may seem, it does something powerful—it provides effortless repetition for a viewer, which can be extremely useful in a variety of contexts. One of the most universal ways that a gif can be useful to you as a student and professional is to find a gif that you can use as a method of mindfulness. From a gif of relaxing ocean waves to a well-timed gif that can guide you in a deep breathing exercise, these quick files that can be easily stored on your phone or readily available on your favorite social media platform can be used to center and focus at any time of the day in just a few seconds.
Additionally, gifs can be used to help you remember how to complete a process. For example, if you are struggling with applying a certain feature in Lightbox, make a quick gif of the steps involved using a free app like Giphy Cam, and replay the gif when you need a reminder. Once you have mastered the technique, you can share the gif with your friends and colleagues. If your art medium has you engage in more hands-on, mechanical processes, gifs can be used in this manner. Create a gif of the trickiest portion of the process or of how the completed item will look or operate, and you will have a wonderful tool available at your disposal.
As you enter your professional career, before and after gifs can be used to show clients how different techniques applied to various digital art pieces change the final product. Gifs can be used to create buzz in advertising as you show snapshots of the techniques used in creating a finished piece. You can use a gif on a page selling a given art piece by quickly showing the piece from a variety of angles. The limit on the usefulness of gifs is only limited by your creativity. Even if you just create gifs to make people laugh, you are contributing to a body of artistic work that the world value. And, if gifs are just a hobby for you, remember that research shows that gifs of animals are more popular than gifs of people. Not surprising at all.