gifs – I hate them. The format was invented in 1987, which makes it 30 this year (two years older than the World Wide Web), and they've only grown more annoying with age. It started as a static format – the animated gif wasn’t developed until 1995 – but it’s now synonymous with the short looped video: man bangs head against wall, Michael Jackson eats popcorn, cat types on laptop. Thanks to social media, they have now infested the internet. In 2012, the US wing of Oxford University Press voted gif its ‘word of the year’, saying that it has evolved into a ‘tool with serious applications including research and journalism’. Given this distinguished endorsement, I typed ‘gif’ into Google, hoping to learn something. All I got was, well, gifs: penguins fall over, Homer Simpson backs into hedge, Will Smith looks quizzical. If more high-minded applications do exist, they are drowning in a sea of banality and nostalgia.
Don’t get me wrong, I can see their potential: they could be a medium for artistic expression, for miniature silent movies, for cinematic versions of flash fiction, for satire. At best, they capture, amplify and disseminate moments in public life that might otherwise have gone unnoticed (Trump barging past the prime minister of Montenegro at a Nato summit comes to mind). But this has been far outweighed by their use – mostly on social media – as a lazy substitute for reasoned argument.
The producers of gifs – if you can imagine such a pointless existence – claim their creations help people express emotions, but if your response to any discussion is Alan Partridge shrugging, it’s safe to assume nobody needed your input. The smug manner with which people use gifs is entirely vacuous – there’s a sense of an in-joke, where none exists; the illusion of a quip, when you have in fact contributed nothing.
I know what you’re thinking: that with every wave of technology, there’s panic over the death of conversation, and that’s all I’m indulging in. You’re right. The problem is not gifs themselves but, as ever, what their proliferation reveals about our current condition. The way we use gifs reflects the state of public discourse – the endless circular arguments that only increase the gap of understanding; the glibness with which points are put forward; the feeling of victory without having won. We express phoney emotions through the expressions of famous people, while typing hate and abuse from behind a veil of anonymity.
As with all low points, I hope it'll pass. But it seems more likely that, if we’re soon to be plunged into nuclear war, amid the rubble will survive a smartphone flickering with a surprised Jim Carrey in a loop for all eternity.
Article by Debika Ray