Near the end of 2012, the American Oxford Dictionary named “gif” (pronounced either “jif”, as in Jiffy’s Peanut Butter, or “gif” with a hard G) the word of the year. The gif, short for graphics interchange format, is twenty-five years old.
The Economy of the GIF, a panel at this year’s SXWX, discusses the importance of the gif and its current status in Internet culture. I wasn’t there, but I was able to keep abreast of it on Twitter (#gifecon) and it was there, in fact, that I found out about it in the first place.
Described as occupying a space between photos and videos, the gif has been deemed appropriate for increasingly shorter attention spans and that it takes longer to process a video. Most interestingly, it has been mobile technology that has revived the gif. Tumblr is the leader of the pack for usage of gifs and it’s been suggested that it’s one of the top reasons why more and more teens are going to Tumblr and leaving Facebook, as Facebook does not currently support gifs. Gifs are used as a communication tool, such as in texting or email, and are possibly more dynamic than emoticons, such as with “reaction gifs”: gifs used to respond to messages, with or without words.
Gifs are also an excellent marketing tool, possibly better than video as you don’t have to click anything or wait for it to load (lag time can be an issue on mobile tech). It can act as a way of word of mouth, so to speak: if a person sees a gif or gif set and it catches their interest, they are more likely to watch the video it’s sourced from. (I’ve personally had this experience with several videos, watching the video after seeing gifs of it.) The entertainment industry only seems to be picking up on this now, with the movie Stoker being heavily advertised with a gif campaign. We can probably expect more of this in the future with film distributors and studios.
Now when I send a YouTube link, I don’t just send the video. I’ll find gifs and send them as well. Perhaps the gif is thriving because of shorter attention spans, but it’s also thriving because seeing a gif or even a set of them takes less time than watching a video, even if that video is only five minutes or less. In a world where people feel as if they don’t have time, gifs can capture the essence of a video, without the need of watching it.