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Are GIFs dead?

I love a good GIF, it has to be said. They still make me laugh even if I receive them mostly via my dad on our Family WhatsApp channel. GIFs—particularly “reaction GIFs,” such as Michael Jackson chomping on popcorn and Mariah Carey muttering “I don’t know her”— were at one stage, 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.

However, this over accessibility may be to blame for the decreasing popularity of the GIF. Because as older adults became familiar with GIFs through the new, accessible libraries attached to essentially every app, GIFs became “embarrassing.” 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. 

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.’”

GIFs are native almost to Web1 (we are now in Web2, edging on Web3). 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. “This was an art form that was native to the internet,” expressed Matt Semke, a GIF artist who works under the name Cats Will Eat You. “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.

Tumblr debuted in 2007 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 acting as 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.

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. Video compression has improved so much over the years that many video files are much smaller than GIF image files. GIFs from movies are nearly 4.5 megabytes, and the MP4 translation of it is about 20 times smaller, at less than .23 megabytes. 

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 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 rumours 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 by other kinds of moving images now, such as TikTok clips with text over them and super-short Twitter videos that add humour by incorporating sound. A short amount of time will tell. 

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