Are We Approaching Peak GIF?

Like all memes, the animated GIF must constantly evolve or die, and from the looks of the recent GIF innovations, we may have finally reached some sort of limit of the magical, movable image.

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Like all memes, the animated GIF must constantly evolve or die, and from the looks of the recent GIF innovations, we may have finally reached some sort of limit of the magical, movable image.

Today, for example, we encountered the latest in GIF use: Advertising. BetaBeat's Kelly Faircloth received an e-mail from the Standard Hotel in Miami saying "let us ‘gif’ guide you to optimum performance in your yoga and fitness practice," alongside some goofy yoga GIFS, as a way to illustrate its great exercise offerings. "What does that even mean?" Faircloth wonders. The answer to that is nothing, beyond a transparent attempt by a P.R. person to jump on an Internet trend bandwagon. We don't fault the Standard Hotel for trying. It makes sense: The Internet loves GIFs, so why not try to use the Internet gold to lure readers and maybe buyers. But it's a bleak outcome. Are ads really the the future of GIFs?

Unlike many Web darlings, the GIF has held onto Internet's love for years -- but not without adapting new styles and uses to keep it from turning into another tired gimmick. Most memes stay popular for as long as the joke stays fresh, but not the GIF. Remember when Shit Girls Say was a thing and how it's not a thing anymore? The GIF on the other hand has had a 25 year history, with only a brief hiatus. ("Despite its adaptability and ease of use, the GIF became a pariah in the 1990s, due to its overuse on Web-hosting sites," explains the Daily Dot's Fernando Alfonso III.) What has kept the GIF going is its mutability: It can become whatever its creators need it to be. In its earliest days they were an easy way to animate a website, but in their resurgence they have taken on varied uses. Foremost, they are illustrative. "Whether they are used to capture a delectable moment on a show like 'Mad Men,' an epic tumble down a flight of stairs or a bizarre facial expression, they are like the best bits of a conversation or a spectacularly good punch line, on repeat, for your entertainment, forever," The New York Times' Jenna Wortham wrote about the GIF's recent popularity.

With endless content, one would think this could keep the GIF going forever. But, the next level innovations are what has kept the medium popular. Take the What Should We Call Me format, which took off as a way to use GIFs as a punchline. Others have used the GIF not as a joke, but as art. The highbrow cinemegraph pushed the GIF in a more aesthetic direction. The Atlantic also introduced us to the beautiful creations of graphic designer Matthew DeVito. They have even found themselves in art galleries. Recently, we saw GIFs go in another direction, with their use to explain sports during this year's Olympics, which Wortham called "a particularly compelling storytelling format." The medium moved the technology beyond kitsch, isolating game winning and losing moments for viewers.

Since the GIF has survived through evolution, Internet makers are experimenting with new approaches to keep the format alive. The Standard Hotel wasn't too creative, putting some dorky GIFs in an email. BuzzFeed has a more creative attempt, with its new rubbable GIF, which it hopes will facilitate a more immersive user-experience than a standard GIF. Though, so far, it hasn't gotten the same raving acceptance as the sports GIFs. When first announced, Twitter responded making fun of it. "Rubbable GIFS, a breakthrough in making your browser slow down and crash," tweeted Business Insider's Steve Kovach, while Slate's L.V. Anderson called it a "a devious new weapon in its quest to extract as many page views from humanity as possible." We were also skeptical.

GIFs, too, have to live according to the same laws of cool as everything else. Once something gets too popular, as we learned with Greek yogurt, it loses its luster for various reasons. People grow sick of it. The joke gets old. And, of course, it's fun to hate things everyone likes. So far, the GIF has avoided going out of style because the people on the Internet have found new and different uses for the retro format to keep each other entertained. But, perhaps there is a limit to that. The GIF innovation just isn't doing it anymore, and so, it's with not a little bit of trepidation do we come to wonder if perhaps we are approaching Peak GIF.

We know, it is sad. We love the GIF just as much as the rest of the Internet. But, honestly, we should have seen this coming when The New York Times put a GIF on its homepage to illustrate a Times Magazine story about Internet gaming back in April. As we all know, it's the beginning of the end of the trend (or really, the end of the end of the trend)when The New York Times discovers it. If we have to live in a GIF-less world, though, it's hard to imagine what will ever move us, or our static Web pages, again.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.