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Taylor Swift performed at the Grammys earlier this month. Her singalongs became fodder for a GIF.

Associated Press ,

Common on early Internet, GIF files make a comeback

  • Article by: ALEX WILLIAMS
  • New York Times
  • February 25, 2013 - 5:04 PM

The Internet, it seems, has found its version of vinyl chic.

Just as the LP has enjoyed a second spin among retro-minded music fans, animated GIFs — the choppy, crude snippets of video loops that hark back to dial-up modems — are enjoying an unlikely vogue as the digital accessory of the moment.

Hypnotically repeating GIFs are popping up in art galleries in Berlin, Miami and New York. In fashion advertising, they are suddenly as hot as ironic brogues, appearing in online marketing campaigns for brands like Burberry, Diesel and Jack Spade. Online, there are GIF contests both highbrow and low. Twitter’s new short video app, called Vine, is essentially a GIF-maker.

Social media sites like Tumblr have entire pages devoted to viral GIFs plucked from the biggest news events of five minutes ago (political speeches, awkward awards-show moments and other pop-cultural flotsam), which instantly circulate as must-see memes.

“For people in their 20s, GIFs are a relic of their childhood, so it makes sense they would come back as a fashion statement — just like ’70s fashion came back in the ’90s, and the ’90s are coming back around now,” said Jason Tanz, executive editor of Wired.

It’s an unlikely renaissance for a geeky computer format that dates to 1987, the Internet’s Paleozoic era. That was when CompuServe, the Internet service provider, developed the “graphics interchange format,” as a way to bring a little color and movement to the Web.

Thanks to the animated GIF, first-generation Internet memes like the dancing baby (later appropriated by “Ally McBeal”) were spread.

The format has since grown up. Artists and photographers have used GIF technology to push far beyond the lo-fi novelty of Web 1.0. Consider the Wigglegram, a craze on Tumblr, which creates a jaunty 3-D effect by looping multiple images shot from slightly different perspectives, like an old-fashioned stereopticon.

In addition to looking more fluid and professional, GIFs are becoming easier to create, thanks to Web-based apps like GIFSoup and Gifninja, which allow people to create them in an instant, said Brad Kim, editor of Know Your Meme, a site that tracks Web fads of the moment.

Emotional GIFs

In a world where so much daily communication takes place by text, GIFs are being used by Web geeks as a visual way to drive home a written point. To celebrate good news, they might insert a dorky celebratory dance from “The Office.” In this sense, GIFs function as glorified emoticons to punctuate a point when, say, typing out a blog comment.

These pop-cultural GIFs have gained cultural currency as a way to distill big televised moments into short visual bites, often with a humorous bent. Such GIFs are often live-edited by editors at social news sites like Buzzfeed, and disseminated instantly, one step ahead of tomorrow’s water-cooler topics, said Mike Hayes, the social media editor of Buzzfeed.

Recent examples include Taylor Swift’s singalong to a Bob Marley tune during last month’s Grammy presentations, Beyoncé avoiding a wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl and Michelle Obama’s apparent eye-roll at John Boehner at last month’s post-inauguration luncheon.

“A lot of viral GIFs we see these days are real-time snippets of what’s trending in the viral video circuit, news and pop culture,” Kim said. “In a way, GIF is taking over TV shows like ‘The Soup’ or ‘Best Week Ever’ as the more accurate pop culture barometer of our time.”

The art of GIF

The cultural currency of GIFs has not gone unnoticed. The august Oxford American Dictionaries voted “GIF” as the word of the year for 2012, beating out “Eurogeddon” (the potential financial collapse of the eurozone) and “superstorm.”

The GIF has also captured the attention of the art world. To mark the format’s 25th birthday, Tumblr and Paddle8, an online auction house, held a GIF festival called “Moving the Still,” where public submissions were curated by a panel that included artist Richard Phillips, musician Michael Stipe and writer James Frey. Fifteen of more than 3,500 submissions were chosen and exhibited in a 35,000-square-foot warehouse during Art Basel Miami Beach in December.

The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens has been examining the format in installations, including the current Under Construction, with a 50-foot seamless projection in the lobby featuring thousands of old GIF files preserved from GeoCities, the once-popular Web hosting service.

To Carl Goodman, the museum’s executive director, the GIF provides a link between today’s technologically sophisticated visual culture and the 19th century, before movies, when short bursts of looping motion captured the public’s imagination on moving-picture devices like the zoetrope.

“The GIF,” he said, “occupies very fertile ground between the still and the moving image.”

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