Why Gifs Don’t Have to Be Worth Anything to Have Value
“Gifs feel extremely dated. They were never easy to make and didn’t work particularly well on mobile,” says internet culture reporter Ryan Broderick in The Guardian last week. In this, he’s right. Gifs had their moment, but that era is ending, much the way the VRML web language may have felt in the late 1990s. (That’s a deep cut for you web history buffs out there.) But then Ryan says something that hurt my feelings: “So now [Gifs] are basically the cringe reaction image your millennial boss uses in Slack.” I’m not Ryan’s boss, but I think he’s talking about me.
I love gifs, they’re my favorite digital file type. Years ago, I created and taught a gif making class which was part tech, part art, and part tech history and appreciation. The course was a semester long deep dive into the file format, its history and rise to ubiquity through forums, MySpace, and Tumblr. In the mid-2010s, it was a unique replacement for language, similar to that of emojis, but containing so much more meaningful content.
The Guardian story is about the UK’s competition regulator attempting to block Meta from acquiring Giphy, a gif database company that specializes in a library of gifs and gif-like loops for social media and online networks. Giphy argues that gifs are no longer valuable “due to an overall decline in gif use” because of a waning user base. There’s no one cause for gif’s decline, but it can be tied to the file’s inability to keep up with the times, the expansion of emojis, Apple’s Memoji’s replacing reaction gifs, or memes just getting more useful.
But gifs hold an important role in our digital culture aside from the ongoing debate on its pronunciation. (The founder of the format says it’s soft g, but it’s short for graphical interchange format which has a hard g so I go with gif, not jif.) Gifs are digital objects that have unique visual categories, much the way YouTube has genres that only exist in its space (“haul,” “unboxing,” “Mr. Beast”). Gifs are forever looping display cases of glitch art, reactions, cinemagrams, optical art, and visual combinations.