The GIF: Bridging the gap between still photography and video

With its increasing presence in digital culture, featured in news articles on politics, blogging and social media platforms, and on-the-go via mobile technology, the GIF seems to be here to stay.

It was recently reported that Giphy, the world’s largest online GIF database, surpassed 100,000,000 daily active users, who share and send 1,000,000,000 GIFs every day (yes, one billion!) These impressive statistics are enough to see Giphy close on in established multimedia brand Snapchat, who boast 150,000,000 global active users per day.

 

 

2016: The Year of the GIF

2016 has proved to be the year of the GIF, which has seen searching capabilities added to a whole host of popular social media platforms including Facebook, Facebook Messenger and Twitter, as well as a number of other online applications such as Tinder, iMessage and Microsoft Outlook. With the Giphy search engine powering GIF use on all of these and more, over 2,000,000 hours of GIFs are viewed each day. And this can only be expected to increase.

Some of the world’s largest and most influential technology companies have also embraced this image format – the Graphics Interchange Format, to use its full name – with the likes of Apple and Instagram both incorporating this capture method in their latest software. The latter have even created a sister application, Boomerang, which is specifically designed to allow users to create and share their own short-looping, ‘image’ videos.

 

 

Storytelling in motion

The GIF is nothing new, with this recent surge in its popularity occurring almost 30 years after the format’s creation in 1987 at the hands of US-based software writer, Steve Wilhite. Its widespread usage on the Internet and its ever-increasing portability via handheld devices has definitely contributed to its recent popularity.

But what is it about the GIF that has led to its status as one of the most emblematic features of the social media world in the 21st Century?

John Barnett, a product manager at Instagram who was involved in the development of Boomerang, suggests that movement adds another dimension to the way in which people already use media as a mode of storytelling: “Motion can add another layer or perspective to the story you want to tell”, he told TIME.

So, there is supposedly something deeper to be found in moving images than still photographs. The movement in a GIF is played on a loop meaning that a moment can be expanded even further. GIFs allow for certain gestures, expressions and delivery to be captured, replayed and re-watched.

This can add another dimension to the image as the movement personalises the moment, bringing the subject to life in gestures and expressions that become evocative of their character, of who they are as a person. Who can deny the lure of Jennifer Lawrence’s spectacular fall at the Oscars or the Barack Obama mic drop?

 

 

GIF as art and culture

It is precisely this movement, however, that is generated by a succession of still images or frames grouped together and displayed in sequence. Still considered as a form of image format, so rather than leaving the art of photography behind, the GIF should be viewed as a product of the growing creativity that evolving technology has enabled.

As Russell Armand, the co-founder of the animated platform, Phhhoto, told TIME: “Pictures can do things that pictures were never supposed to do, and at some point soon, messaging will just happen inside the pictures themselves”.

The GIF has become part of everyday conversations for some people, in the same way that sharing images has. They enable yet another form of self-expression and presentation that is already intensely competitive in an image-saturated culture. Now with increasing compatibility with already heavily utilised online media, GIFs become part of how we already communicate via these platforms.

The pleasures of GIF culture are not only resigned to the realms of the online world, however, with the format now a creative medium for contemporary artists. Giphy even hosted a one-day gallery opening in New York featuring work from 25 GIF artists.

 

So regardless of what side of the pronunciation debate you stand – is it GIF (hard “G”) or JIF (soft “G”)? – the growing popularity and possibilities created by this medium cannot be denied. With continuing financial investment, GIF technology is sure to grow.

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