Tiny clips from films and TV shows have become a staple of online discourse. But is the era of the GIF coming to an end, asks PAMELA HUTCHINSON
How are you feeling today? Good? Like two-Minions-squealing good? I’ll drink to that, or rather Leonardo DiCaprio will toast you with raised eyebrows and a saucer of champagne. Perhaps your current mood is more defiant, like Bette Davis brandishing a celery stick in All About Eve (1950), or sad, like Boo wailing in Monsters, Inc (2001). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s a little embarrassing for me, but don’t worry, I’ll just retreat backwards into this nearby hedge. Homer Simpson: it me.
GIFs culled from films and TV shows have exploded across social media in recent years. So much so that it’s increasingly unusual to find an online conversation that isn’t peppered with brief, seconds-long clips, often completely dissociated from their sources. On the one hand, you can take a sweeping glance at Twitter or WhatsApp and find modern visual culture celebrated like never before. On the other, these snippets are rarely credited to the original work or even to the individual GIF-makers, and can have their original meaning and relevance twisted beyond comprehension.
The animated GIF celebrated its 30th birthday in 2019 – it’s the same age as the web itself. The original Graphics Interchange Format is two years older: it was invented by Steve Wilhite at CompuServe on June 15, 1987, as a compressed image format offering high quality at a smaller file size that could be used by all kinds of computers. Two years later, in 1989, CompuServe introduced what now looks like a gamechanger, animation support. But it wasn’t until the mid-1990s and the early days of the World Wide Web that the GIF took off. Tiny looping animations spread all over early web pages, not to mention blinking banner ads that induced ferocious headaches. If you were online in the noughties you saw your fair share of these too: MySpace launched in 2003, and users customised their pages lavishly with GIFs. But the GIF as we know it today is a true child of the 2010s.
In 2012, the Oxford English Dictionary made ‘GIF’ its word of the year, and while Wilhite insists it is pronounced with a soft g, he is practically a lone voice among the millions who say otherwise. In 2015, almost every social media platform you can think of added GIF keyboards to its messaging and commenting options. That GIF support is powered by platforms such as Giphy (founded in 2013) and Tenor (founded in 2014): hosting sites where users, or brands, can upload GIFs for other people to use. GIFs are easy to make, and even easier to share. You never need to type words again. Simply let Leo and Boo do the talking for you, in a few carefully chosen frames, ripped from a digital file.
Film and TV GIFs have joined the rest of our online visual shorthand: the memes, likes, favourites and emojis that speed up our conversations and, arguably, reduce our attention spans. And because each GIF can mean whatever we want them to mean, we increasingly consider them our property rather than that of the original creators. There was an outcry recently, for example, when the adorable GIFs of the ‘Baby Yoda’ character from new show The Mandalorian disappeared overnight from Giphy. The GIF-sharing site has apologised for the temporary lack of access to the tiny green cutie, although initially online users believed that Disney itself had pulled them so as to make more money out of selling merchandise further down the line.
Earlier this year, Twitter users pronounced themselves shocked to discover that a popular GIF of a man nodding was in fact a very specific and famous man: Robert Redford in the 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson. Prior to that he had simply been ‘nodding man’ or, according to several users’ incorrect assumptions, the actor Zach Galifianakis. That came swiftly after a short video clip of the movie Force Majeure (2014) was passed off online as real-life footage of an avalanche. It was a compelling scene from a very good film, but in terms of online discourse, it was simply fake news.
So what makes a great GIF? “It has got to have this element of being very, very specific but, at the same time, weirdly universal,” says Hannah Woodhead, associate editor at Little White Lies, and a connoisseur of internet memes. The perfect movie GIF for social media involves a moment unique to that film but so expressive that it is appropriate for a range of other moods. Woodhead is a big fan of Antonio Banderas turning away from his laptop with a satisfied laugh from the 1995 thriller Assassins, or Keanu Reeves’ grand entrance in the 2019 rom-com Always Be My Maybe. Both have multiple applications. Myself, I’m quite fond of Myrna Loy wrinkling her nose, telephone in hand, in The Thin Man (1934).
Is that because I hate talking on the phone, or because I really like The Thin Man? Both, actually. The GIF is more than a replacement for banter. It has serious cinephile credentials. Arguably, our obsession with movie GIFs spread from the picture-heavy blogging platform Tumblr. From 2010 to 2015, a Tumblr called ‘If We Don’t, Remember Me’ shared elegant, subtly animated GIFs from films, revealing the beauty and the meaning in composition, lighting and small movements within each frame. Before the site closed, a selection of its best work was exhibited in a video installation at galleries around the world. GIFs can be blocky and blunt, but they can also be high-resolution, beautiful and neatly circular: an impeccable way to quote a movie.
“It’s nice to me that this whimsical form of media could help people genuinely expand their artistic horizons and discover film history,” says Woodhead. That nodding GIF certainly did a lot to boost the memory of an otherwise mostly forgotten 1970s western – at least it did once people knew where it had come from. You don’t need to type in film titles to get a result from GIF keyboards (although you can), simply moods or phrases. There’s a GIF of a fancy camera shot from the silent movie Wings (1927) that every so often goes viral, which goes to show that the first ever Best Picture Oscar-winner is still relevant in the 21st century, at least for a second or two at a time. But, of course, if the GIF is posted without credit, as so many of them are, then no one would be any wiser. It might as well be a clip of Zach Galifianakis.
Should a responsible poster in a public forum credit both the original film and the person who created the GIF whenever they use one of these online keyboards? Perhaps not, but surely there should be an onus on GIF uploaders and hosting sites to add alt text (explanatory text embedded in the image) so that users know what they are referencing and whose work they are enjoying, without having to run off to knowyourmeme.com.
However, responsible GIF usage goes further than that. Some people with photosensitive epilepsy find that the looping images can trigger their condition, and people with visual impairment using screen readers will rely on that crucial alt-text to get the joke.
Then there’s a phenomenon known as ‘digital blackface’, defined by a 2017 editorial in Teen Vogue as using “the relative anonymity of online identity to embody blackness”. Simply put, white people posting reaction GIFs featuring people of colour are performing a kind of digital minstrelsy, as well as cultural appropriation, facilitated by the preponderance of racial stereotypes such as “angry black lady” as options in GIF search engines.
Understandably, this can be wildly offensive, even if that wasn’t the intention behind the post. As journalist Victoria Princewill put it in a video for the BBC: “We’re not symbols of excessive emotion, and we aren’t here to make you look more sassy, more sexy or more street.” Choosing the right GIF for the occasion requires sensitivity as well as a sense of humour. “I think we have to be comfortable with not being comfortable,” says Woodhead. “Acknowledging that is so important. All we can do is call it out when we see it and try to be better.”
The best-made and chosen GIFs express something about the user’s true identity, anyway – not a pose. It’s the opportunity to combine unfiltered emotion and a hip cultural reference that draws many of us to the GIF keyboard, to find something better than words alone. Why be me, when I could be Myrna Loy? Or one of those other two classic Hollywood GIF favourites – Cary Grant and Joan Crawford?
That said, the reign of the GIF may be over, at least in its democratic DIY form. Once marketing teams cottoned on to the popularity of GIFs among the cinephile sections of Twitter, they started producing their own. When we share neatly captioned scenes from new films even before they are released, are we not just doing the studio’s marketing for them? Though it goes both ways: classic film fans seeking to promote their favourites regularly say a silent prayer of thanks to short-lived streaming site Filmstruck, which created and uploaded hundreds of impeccable movie moments to GIF platforms before it closed.
For Woodhead, GIFs are no longer as cool as they once were, and the subtitled screenshot is now king. They’re quicker to load, for one thing. But, as the internet conversation gets faster and faster, sadly there will always be a few of us several steps behind. If only there were a GIF for that feeling.