“Animated GIFs are the web’s vinyl records,” wrote Jamie Zawinski on Twitter a few months ago. It’s a sly but accurate observation. In the face of Flash and streaming video, the animated GIF, which has been around since the 1990s, has refused to fade away. It remains a ubiquitous part of Web culture and inspires countless memes amongst a new generation of Web users. While the underlying technology of the animated GIF hasn’t changed, artists continue to explore new approaches to the form, such as cinemagraphs and the recent animated GIF comics trend.
There are many reasons for the extended reign of the animated GIF, prime among them the form’s emphasis on cycles (or loops). Rhythmic repetition was a staple graphic technique of theatrical animation during the 1920s and 1930s before being cast aside in favor of more realistic approaches to movement. The inherent beauty of cycled movement, which was cheapened by limited TV animation in the 1960s, has enjoyed a creative rebirth with the advent of the animated GIF. The animated GIF is also a remarkably potent form, and combined with good timing, it can deliver a surprising punchline as funny as any comedian’s joke. The British animator Cyriak has perfected this type of animated GIF. Perhaps the underpinning reason for the endurance of the animated GIF is its utter simplicity: it has no sound, generally last less than 10 seconds, and require no technical knowledge to create, thanks to the abundance of gif-making websites.