The GIF Is on Its Deathbed
The internet’s file format has been diagnosed as “cringe,” but there are other threats to its existence.
About 40 percent of my first full-time job was dedicated to making GIFs—a skill I had professed to have during the interview process, and that turned out to be much harder than I thought. It took trial and error to figure out how to make sure the colors weren’t too weird, the frame rate too fast, the file too big.
This was 2015, and GIFs had to be smaller than 1 megabyte before you could upload them to most social platforms. Fiddling with them was worthwhile, because GIFs were very important. You had to have them! They were the visual style that the audience craved. Not only did I make dozens a day for the website I worked for, but I often made extras for co-workers who requested them for their personal use. (I was eager to please!)
GIFs—particularly “reaction GIFs,” such as Michael Jackson chomping on popcorn and Mariah Carey muttering “I don’t know her”—were a lingua franca of the internet and significant enough culturally that in 2014, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York even put on an exhibit of reaction GIFs (titled “Moving Image as Gesture”). “This is the file format of the internet generation,” Tumblr’s then-head of creative strategy, David Hayes, told Mashable in 2016, while more than 23 million GIF-based posts were being uploaded to the site he worked for each day. As the GIF’s star rose, GIF-searching features were added to Facebook, Twitter, and iMessage, making it even easier to find a GIF to express whatever emotion you wanted to convey without words.
And that was the turning point. These search features surfaced the same GIFs over and over, and the popular reaction GIFs got worn into the ground. They started to look dated, corny, and cheap. “GIFs Are for Boomers Now, Sorry,” Vice’s Amelia Tait argued in January. As older adults became familiar with GIFs through the new, accessible libraries attached to essentially every app, GIFs became “embarrassing.” (Tait specifically cites the GIF of Leonardo DiCaprio raising a toast in 2013’s The Great Gatsby, and I agree—it is viscerally humiliating to be reminded of that movie.) The future is dark for GIFs, Tait suggested: “Will they soon disappear forever, like Homer Simpson backing up into a hedge?”
Much, too, has been made of Meta’s acquisition of the GIF search engine Giphy, which regulators in the U.K. have attempted to block. Giphy pushed back by roasting themselves. “GIPHY has no proven revenue stream (of any significance),” the company’s lawyers wrote in a filing with the Competition and Markets Authority. No company other than Meta is interested in buying it—they know because they specifically asked Adobe, Amazon, Apple, ByteDance, Snap, and Twitter, and they all said no. “Further, there are indications of an overall decline in GIF use,” the filing continues. Without providing any specific figures, they highlight a “drop in total GIF uploads,” a growing disdain for GIFs among social-media users, and “younger users in particular describing GIFs as ‘for boomers’ and ‘cringe.’”
What I would like to suggest is that the situation is even worse than it appears. Not only are reaction GIFs “cringe” to some people, but the entire GIF medium is under serious existential threat.
GIFs are old and arguably outdated. They’ve been around since the days of CompuServe’s bulletin-board system, and they first thrived during the garish heyday of GeoCities, a moment in history that is preserved by the Internet Archive on a page called, appropriately, GifCities.
GIFs—as a file format, not as a category of thing you could use to express an opinion without formulating one—were special. “This was an art form that was native to the internet,” Matt Semke, a GIF artist who works under the name Cats Will Eat You, told me. “Videos existed in other places; paintings, photos existed in other places. GIFs just didn’t exist anywhere until the internet.” And they were beloved because of the seamless animated loop, which was not possible with any other file format. Because of their unwieldiness and antiquation, today, many GIFs are converted to MP4 video files, which look good and make life easier but do not loop perfectly. There is always a tiny hiccup when the video has to restart, making them inferior.
For people like Semke, 2007 was the year to be alive. Tumblr debuted and quickly became the home of digital art and fandom, which meant it became the home of GIFs. Originally, users were stuck with the traditional 1-megabyte limit, with a low resolution of 500-by-500 pixels. This may sound annoying, but actually, it was great. Semke recalls that it was “a cool challenge for artists to try to crunch their art down into a file that was so restrictive—the challenge in itself was part of the art.”
But even with the restrictions, optimizing so many animated images became expensive for Tumblr. It needed a way to crunch them down. So the company approached Eddie Kohler, a Harvard computer scientist, in 2013 to help with its GIF-resizing process. This resulted in a platform that was uniquely well-suited to serving its millions of GIF-hungry users an endless feed of GIFs, which is precisely what it has continued doing to the present day.
Tumblr is now a rarity for displaying GIFs at all. Most popular sites—including Twitter and Imgur—convert GIF uploads and serve the animations as MP4 videos. As Kohler explained to me, video compression has improved so much over the years that many video files are much smaller than GIF image files. He pulled a GIF from a movie and a graphic-art GIF to show me the difference. The GIF from the movie was nearly 4.5 megabytes, and the MP4 translation of it was about 20 times smaller, at less than .23 megabytes. “MP4 is the right choice for this kind of image,” he said. “Much smaller, very similar visual effect.”
But not everyone lives their life in pursuit of expediency. For some, GIFs are an art form; therefore, detail matters, and pain is expected. Kohler noted that an image tailored to this format might demand “pixel perfection for its effect,” which makes compression a trickier business. We looked at an example of graphic art where the GIF version was about 5.4 megabytes and the MP4 was about 4.8 megabytes. “MP4 is blurring some of the pixel perfection,” he pointed out, “and MP4 isn’t even that much smaller.” Even so, artists must follow their audience, and much of the digital-art scene has moved from Tumblr to Instagram for greater visibility. Instagram allows only video uploads, and a GIF artist’s page there will appear as a grid with “Play” buttons all over it. A Tumblr archive of GIFs is a living thing, playing over and over. “That’s probably why I’m still on Tumblr,” Cat Frazier, the artist behind Animated Text, told me. Although she has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, it’s not the same: “If I could just upload GIFs everywhere and not reformat them, I would.”
Tragically, even Tumblr’s commitment to the GIF is now in question. In 2015, it appeared to be unwavering: “The format is woefully outdated, and this begets massive, low quality animated images,” a post on Tumblr’s engineering blog read. “However, as the true ‘home of the gif,’ Tumblr isn’t ever giving up on your gif files!” This summer, though, even Tumblr started “experimenting with serving GIFs as MP4 videos” to a “small subset” of users, with the aim of making GIFs load faster. (Company blog posts discussing the change did advise artists that they could opt out of this conversion by adding a single transparent pixel to the first frame of their GIFs, breaking the conversion and thwarting the process.)
So could it really be the end for the ol’ GIF? Tumblr sees nowhere near the number of posts of any kind that it did six years ago, and not to be crass, but there are constantly rumors that it is itself at death’s door. GIFs are “cringe” in part because they are too easy to make and find—they have been totally devalued by the public. And they are being replaced—Frazier noted that people communicate with other kinds of moving images now, such as TikTok clips with text over them and super-short Twitter videos that add humor by incorporating sound.
But I think there will always be, at least, a handful of masochists who want to struggle to make a GIF and struggle again to post it somewhere—all because they are devoted to the perfect animated loop, and because they think there is something spiritually important about contorting themselves to create it. “[Igor] Stravinsky has a quote about constraints,” Kohler told me. Then he read the whole thing aloud: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”