The End of a Millennial Internet Era
Kaitlyn Tiffany on how Slack and Giphy hastened the decline of a treasured mode of online expression, the GIF
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Millennials are seeing their version of the internet slip away and even be dismissed as “cringe.” Kaitlyn Tiffany and I discuss the GIF, the Millennial pause, and how Gen Z has changed the way we communicate online.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
Smug and Silly?
Kate Lindsay: Your recent article, “The GIF Is on Its Deathbed,” really resonated online. What are GIFs, and what is their significance to the internet?
Kaitlyn Tiffany: The GIF was one of the earliest file formats of the internet (it’s an acronym for “graphics interchange format”), and it took off in the days of CompuServe, AOL, and then the Netscape browser. The first heyday for GIFs was on the early personal webpages of GeoCities, but people were still wallpapering their MySpace pages with GIFs when I was in middle school, about a decade later. The animated GIF is the one that became famous, but technically GIFs don’t have to be animated—it’s just one of the interesting possibilities of a format that is flexible enough to take many different extensions.
Kate: You write that Gen Z finds GIFs “cringe.” Why is that?
Kaitlyn: Gen Z specifically finds reaction GIFs cringe-y—they claim that it’s because reaction GIFs are associated with Millennials, but I don’t really believe in intergenerational warfare. I think the problem is more that most of the good reaction GIFs have gotten way overused because they’ve become way too accessible. If you’re looking to convey a specific emotion in a tweet or in a text or in a Slack message, the GIF-search feature or Giphy integration that’s part of all of these apps now will pull up the same handful of super-popular GIFs over and over. (The Slack ones are just the worst, because they also replay over and over in the window until the conversation moves on for long enough to push them up and out.) You just don’t see a lot of creativity, and it comes off as very lazy.
Before all of those search functions, even five years ago, people were pretty invested in grabbing interesting moments from different things and appropriating them into funny or smart contexts. Now that we’ve lost that, I think using a GIF can come off as smug and silly. (I’ve written about this before, specifically in reference to the “How do you do, fellow kids?” GIF, which is almost physically repulsive to me.)
Kate: I recently wrote about “the Millennial pause,” which, like the decline of GIFs, is a sign that the Millennial era of social media, defined by Facebook and Instagram, is ending. Do you see any other harbingers of that?
Kaitlyn: The weirdest thing about Facebook, to me, is that Millennials are really the only generation that made it central to their adolescence or their college experience. My youngest sister never made an account as far as I know. Although she is heavily into Instagram and is better at the “photo dump” than anyone my age. If there’s a really notable difference between the two generations for me, I would say that Gen Z has a more reflexive and natural-seeming relationship with social media that is actually defined a lot less by anxiety about its role in their lives. Not to say that they don’t have the same incentives to perform or experience nightmarish outcomes from having their whole social circle exist online, but more that it feels like a natural part of growing up to them. Because why wouldn’t it?
My sisters got very annoyed with me when I suggested they join BeReal [an app for sharing personal photos that brands itself as a more transparent alternative to Instagram]. I think that idea was cringe to them—that anyone would really be feeling so freaked out by the facade of Instagram that they would need a separate app to help them get away from it.
Kate: What does the new social-media era look like? Is there a Gen Z equivalent to GIFs?
Kaitlyn: To generalize, I think Gen Z is just more video-first! On Twitter, especially, I see them react to things with super-short video clips that, when it comes down to it, are effectively GIFs with sound. I guess the image quality tends to be better and they don’t have those embarrassing watermarks on them that show up when you make a GIF using a free GIF maker, so that makes them slightly less “cringe.” But otherwise it’s basically the same thing, just funnier. I think because of [the short-form video apps] Vine and then TikTok, people who spend a lot of time on social media got really good at comedic timing.
Kate: Popular platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr have started converting and compressing GIFs to MP4 files because they’re smaller, which GIF artists dislike for many reasons. Do you think total GIF extinction is imminent?
Kaitlyn: This is why I thought the GIF story would be fun to write—there’s all this talk about whether GIFs will fall out of use because they are embarrassing or not en vogue. But people seemed to be referring to “GIFs” as the general concept of a short, recurring animation, not as a file format. The latter is what’s really under threat because it actually is outdated in a physical, technical, tangible sense. In the story, I spoke with an artist who will continue using them forever because of some particularities of the GIF, so I don’t think it will die completely. But I can imagine the GIF, in a few years, being sort of the die-hard digital artist’s tool, and for reasons that only buffs can grasp. You know, like Quentin Tarantino buying up all that Kodak film.
- The Federal Reserve plans to raise interest rates again next month, amid concerns about the persistence of inflation.
- Thirty percent of Ukraine’s power stations have been destroyed in the past week, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky. At least three Ukrainian cities have experienced power outages following Russian attacks on infrastructure.
- Xi Jinping is expected to be confirmed for an unprecedented third term as China’s president at this week’s National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
- Galaxy Brain: “We’ve had failed technologies as long as we’ve had technologies, but right now we seem to be in a golden age of brute-force innovation,” Charlie Warzel writes.
- Brooklyn, Everywhere: Xochitl Gonzalez explores the dark feminism of the film Tár.
The Rise of ‘Luxury Surveillance’
By Chris Gilliard
Imagine, for a moment, the near future Amazon dreams of.
Every morning, you are gently awakened by the Amazon Halo Rise. From its perch on your nightstand, the round device has spent the night monitoring the movements of your body, the light in your room, and the space’s temperature and humidity. At the optimal moment in your sleep cycle, as calculated by a proprietary algorithm, the device’s light gradually brightens to mimic the natural warm hue of sunrise. Your Amazon Echo, plugged in somewhere nearby, automatically starts playing your favorite music as part of your wake-up routine. You ask the device about the day’s weather; it tells you to expect rain. Then it informs you that your next “Subscribe & Save” shipment of Amazon Elements Super Omega-3 softgels is out for delivery. On your way to the bathroom, a notification bubbles up on your phone from Amazon’s Neighbors app, which is populated with video footage from the area’s Amazon Ring cameras: Someone has been overturning garbage cans, leaving the community’s yards a total wreck. (Maybe it’s just raccoons.)
More From The Atlantic
Read. Two new books about dance that show how movement helps us see the rhythms we all share.
Watch. Season 2 of The Vow, an HBO documentary series about the organization NXIVM that raises questions about how best to tell the story of a cult.
Listen. The latest episode of our podcast How to Build a Happy Life, about why it’s so hard to find love on dating apps.
Giphy is in the news today, as U.K. regulators have ordered Meta to sell the GIF platform, which it bought in 2020. But I’m more interested in what Giphy determined to be the most popular GIF of 2021: a clip from Season 5 of The Office, which aired in 2008 and 2009, in which the camera zooms in on a bored and unimpressed Stanley (Leslie David Baker) crossing his arms. It is the perfect—or, to Kaitlyn’s point about Slack narrowing the pool of GIFs, simply the most obvious—GIF for messaging your co-worker when your boss says something you don’t like. GIFs may be going out of style, but some things, like The Office and the desire to express our boredom, apparently never get old.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.