We are in the golden age of the animated .GIF. What was once a MySpace eyesore has become part of the internet lexicon, a delightful way to convey memes, punchlines, and sometimes even art.
The animated .GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) has been around since the early 1990s, when Netscape created a code to allow for the display of successive images within a single frame. GIFs were initially popular in corners of the internet like 4Chan and Fark, message boards where extremely dedicated users developed their own language and inside jokes around the format. As they become increasingly mainstream, they offer a whole new medium in the formerly flat and one-note world of online communication.
The emoticon was once our best method of conveying feelings in a digital space where facial expressions and inflection weren’t possible. Today, memes have made GIFs (or have GIFs made memes?) part of everyday communication, a much better way of expressing what was once digitally inexpressible. GIFs are a way of conveying discrete moments in time. In an essay for Motherboard, “The GIF that Keeps on GIFing,” Joshua Kopstein writres,
Human memory is intimately tied to isolated moments in time. According to the Atkinson-Shifrin model – the same one that divided human memory into long-term, short-term and sensory – most of the things we experience are not committed to long-term memory beyond a few select moments. So it makes sense that we’ve embraced GIFs as these suspended moments in time, looping only the information necessary to conjure a particular emotion or memory.