Crazed animals! Political satire! People falling over! How the gif took over the worldwide web...

The internet overflows with the Graphics Interchange Format  - a simple, looping animation that informs, advertises, sells, entertains, illuminates and anthropomorphises.

To observe the way a dusty relic of the web's dial-up age is transforming today's internet, search “gif” on Google news. At the time of writing, 71 million headlines include: “Animated GIF Shows How Legal Marijuana Is Spreading All Around The Country”; “KStew Reaches Her Limit With The Paps, The Resulting GIF Is Awesome”; “Marissa Mayer announces Yahoo Tumblr acquisition via animated GIF”; “Iceberg picnic goes awry, snake protects puppies”.

The Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF (read on for a pronunciation guide) is, as you may know, a simple, looping animation a few seconds long that is neither video nor photo - a digital flipbook operated by a tireless thumb. Invented 26 years ago, five years before the web gained its first photograph, they helped make gaudy text flash in different colours, among other things, crudely animating the earliest web pages. As hi-tech as clip art, they ought to have gone the same way yet today the internet overflows with gifs that inform, advertise, sell, entertain, illuminate and anthropomorphise (have you seen the bipedal poodle dancing the cha-cha?)

Such is the gif’s grip on web culture that in November the Oxford English Dictionaries proclaimed its verbal form America’s word of the year (“omnishambles” beat it to the top spot in Britain). The definition: “to create a GIF file of (an image or video sequence, especially relating to an event): he GIFed the highlights of the debate.” The example was a reference to Tumblr, the photo-heavy blogging site that has done more than any other to retrieve the gif from the web’s recycle bin. It “live-GIFed” last year’s presidential debates, punctuating instant comment with humorous looped images of, say, Mitt Romney pulling a weird face. Elsewhere, the site’s 100 million users devote a significant proportion of posts to LOL-worthy gifs. A typical blog called Animals Riding Animals includes gifs showing a cockatiel riding a tortoise and a cat riding a ram.

Yahoo bought Tumblr last month for $1.1bn (£700m). Tumblr’s founder, David Karp, was deployed days later at the Webby Awards for “excellence on the Internet” to present its prize for lifetime achievement to the gif’s creator. Steve Wilhite was an expert in compression technologies at CompuServe in the Eighties when agonising dial-up connections put a premium on any means of compressing content to make pages load faster. In 1987, Wilhite developed a method for making compressed images that could be static or made up of frames. It brought the web to life and, a quarter of a century later, it’s doing it all over again.

Incidentally, Wilhite, who retired in 2001, earned more attention for his comments on the pronunciation of his brainchild than for the award itself. In place of an acceptance speech, which, according to Webby rules, had to be five words or fewer, he shuffled on stage, shook Karp’s hand and watched in silence as a gif played on the big screen: “IT’S PRONOUNCED “JIF”... NOT “GIF”. Then he shuffled off again.

However you say gif - and even Wilhite failed to end a debate raging online - why is the format taking over the web? Nostalgia for Eighties tech is part of the reason but this is about more than millennials being twee. Perhaps in a way that Wilhite could not have predicted 25 years ago, the gif has become the perfect medium for an internet increasingly concerned with the short, silly and disposable. We want to learn stuff, see stuff or - more than anything - laugh at stupid stuff, but damned if we’re going to hit play and wait for a clunky video to buffer. A slideshow? Boooring. Actual words? No thanks.

Luke Lewis is the editor of BuzzFeed UK, the new outpost of the “social news organisation” most famous for its lists (“33 Animals Who Are Extremely Disappointed In You”). The American site has taken to gifs like a cat to a particularly docile ram. “A lot of our audience like articles that are easy to digest in their lunch breaks,” Lewis says. “It makes sense for them to be instant and quick to load.”

Lewis points out that the speed of gifs has become important again as the majority of his readers now access BuzzFeed from smartphones, on which videos can still be cumbersome. “It’s the ideal format for that new world,” he says. So while a gossip site such as Gawker reported Will Smith’s Graham Norton Show performance with Jazzy Jeff and Carlton last month (don’t ask if that means nothing) with a knowing paragraph of text and a YouTube video, BuzzFeed said it with gifs. The number of words accompanying the article: 18.

But gifs are more than useful, Lewis says. “There’s something undefinably delightful about a great gif. They’re a bit camp in a really great way.” In short, he says, they’re “just fun”. But they’re also getting semi-serious, moving away from memes and lolcats and reaction gifs (witty captions express emotions apparently evident in a face, often animal, portrayed in an animated gif). Big industry is realising value in gifs. Film studios are making gif trailers and digital posters. In fashion they bring products to life. Carrie Tyler is editor of Never Underdressed, a new glossy online fashion magazine with offices in London. The site has embraced gifs, or more hi-tech equivalents (gifs are limited in the colours and resolution they can support) to animate its picture bylines, showing a full-length animated gif of the writer rather than a static mugshot. Elsewhere, in a clothes and underwear feature called “dirty mind”, models flash the viewer, alternately appearing fully-dressed and, more briefly, in underwear. “We wanted a site that jumped off the page and created an immersive experience that you can’t find in print,” Tyler says.

Even artists are giffing. Cinemagrams are photographs in which something moves - perhaps only a few strands of hair or grass in the wind - in a way that makes it hard to spot where the animation loop starts and ends. Psychedelic animations can work like illusions similarly to transfix the viewer. Last Summer, The Photographer’s Gallery in London invited artists to create their own such gifs using one of hundreds of idiot-proof apps and sites now flourishing thanks to the gification of the web. It played them on a large video wall visible from the street.

But gifs may always be at their most effective as a medium for silly stuff. As they multiply, sites are appearing to help catalogue and organise them, or even give credit to their creators. Giphy arrived in April with plans to create artist accounts and elevate a fledgling artform. Until then, the site’s most searched terms reveal much about the role of the gif, and arguably, the modern web it is helping to animate. The top five terms last month were, in reverse order: puppy; love; boobs; cat and sex.

Ten gifs that keep on giving

Best Fail gif

Watching a man trying  to jump into a frozen swimming pool and bouncing off the ice is funny once. Watching him try it again and  again without ever succeeding is something akin to tragedy. Sisyphus and his boulder had nothing on this.

Source: MrRob California/YouTube

Best Celeb gif

Jennifer Lawrence photo-bombing Sarah Jessica Parker at the Met Ball (above) was good evidence that maybe celebrities are real people, too. Sure she’s an award-winning actress on a red carpet, but  OMG, she’s just so goofy! Congratulations, Jen, on winning our hearts.

Source: Stacy Lambe

Best Looping gif

For a gif blog  to succeed, there’s nothing like taking  a simple theme and rolling with it. Taking full  dvantage of the gif’s looping quality, the anonymous Japanese artists behind the rrrrrrrroll Tumblr spin people and objects to surreal effect.

Source: rrrrrrrroll.tumblr.com

Best Political gif

Leader of  the Free World?  Most Gif’d World Leader”, more like. Our favourite Barack Obama gif: the  extbook bipartisan politics of an exploding fist-bump with Republican Senator Mark Kirk following  his State of the Union address.

Source: Mark Read/ Gawker

Best Vintage gif

The 19th-century photographer  Eadweard Muybridge’s stop-motion studies of humans and animals, such as “Animal Locomotion 663a: Mule – A Retractory Animal”, were originally shown in spinning zoetropes, but the gif format works even better.

Source: YouTube

Best cinemagraph

This is an offshoot of the gif: a still image in which  a single element moves, from waving hair to a curl of smoke. See artist Gustaf Mantel’s gallery of “living movie stills” refashioned from the likes of The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Source: iwdrm.tumblr.com

Best Hypnotic gif

Graphic designer David Szakaly creates animated Op-Art:geometric patterns spinning and twisting  into oblivion, taking your mind with them. His blog (dvdp) showcases the best, with the occasional dip into equally mesmerising rainbows.

Source: dvdp.tumblr.com

Best Space gif

The success of International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield’s Twitter account has shown that space and the web are  a match made in, well, in a spaceship. Gifs tracking the Station’s passage are as stellar as Hadfield’s version of “Space Oddity”.

Source: Michael König/YouTube

Best Mash-up Gif

A gif showing  a cat jumping splay-legged out of Felix Baumgartner’s stratosphere-busting balloon raises some pretty serious questions. How did it sneak in? Why didn’t Baumgartner notice? And do cats still land on their feet when jumping from 39km?

Source: CharlieDarwin2/reddit.com

Best Sporting Gif

Want to know  how the world’s greatest golfer developed his swing but need the answer in approximately one second? Then check out this amazing gif (bit.ly/14btutD) demonstrating the evolution of Tiger  Woods’ stroke from  ages three to 37.

Source: Adam Sarson

(by James Vincent)

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