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The GIF Revival

In this blog’s short lifespan, I have already referred to Marshall McLuhan too much, but I’m doing it again now. When I think of something I want to write about, McLuhan often comes to mind, and many of my thoughts are at least somewhat inspired by his.

Right now, McLuhan’s most famous aphorism, “the medium is the message,” is helping me make sense of GIFs. The reason I need to make sense of GIFs is that I’ve seen a lot more of them lately, probably thanks to newly-developed apps that have streamlined the process of GIF creation, enabling their mass production and sending us back to the Geocities ‘90s. That GIF-saturated era of the early Internet, deemed hideous by almost anyone who saw it, is thus experiencing an unintentional revival that is less nostalgic than it probably seems: GIFs were once novel elements of web design, then they weren’t anymore, and finally they returned, not because they looked good again but because we could finally all make them ourselves. Hardly anyone is using GIFs to revive the Geocities style unless that’s their whole point. This phenomenon is different than the vinyl revival, in which listeners found higher quality in something old, nor is it like Instagram’s filtering, which taps into subconscious nostalgia. Instead, as with much of the Internet, it’s simpler than that: Something became easy to make, so everyone made a lot of it.

The rest of the ‘90s Internet look has not returned with the GIF. Instead, GIFs have integrated seamlessly with the Web’s contemporary aesthetic, mainly on Twitter and Tumblr. Facebook, interestingly, limits the presence of GIFs, suggesting that they are the lawn ornaments or billboards of the Internet (although Facebook permits more than its share of equally ugly clutter). Tumblr, in fact, is the ideal habitat where GIFs now thrive without natural predators. The GIF’s finest moment, the anti-funny #whatshouldwecallme (Google it—I won’t link to it), provides an excellent lesson about the format’s appeal by validating McLuhan’s observation. The humor of a GIF is in its form, not its content. The medium is the message. The instinct to laugh at a GIF arises in response to the jerky awkwardness of the image sequence more than from the details of what’s depicted, although people or animals seem like a necessary ingredient. My own responses to GIFs confirm this: I usually think they’re sort of amusing, but almost never hilarious (except for this one). That straightforward, flat dynamic is probably why, as humor devices, GIFs can’t fail but also rarely succeed.

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