Instagram, the Kardashians and … the GIF?
Never before has a digital file extension been so synonymous with popular culture.
Short for Graphics Interchange Format, the GIF is a series of animated images that play on a short, spastic loop. Or, as Jenna Wortham noted in The New York Times, “They are like the best bits of a conversation or a spectacularly good punch line, on repeat, for your entertainment, forever.”
Sites like #WhatShouldWeCallMe use GIFs to pinpoint exactly how we feel when, say, our phones die without warning or after we’ve eaten too much.
Once they stop serving as emotional chronicles, GIFs are used to place cultural value on images we never knew we were missing like Obama’s head superimposed on Beyonce’s shimmying “Single Ladies” body, a slow loris eating a rice ball or an entire GIF guide devoted to the paragon that is Ryan Gosling.
I may be placing too much emphasis on what the GIF has endowed the cultural conversation. But the Oxford American Dictionaries doesn’t seem to think so, claiming it as 2012’s word of the year. Neither does BuzzFeed, a site whose popularity depends heavily on moving images of cats and Taylor Swift.
Concession: the GIF is nothing new. Ushered in by CompuServe in 1987, its original purpose was to provide a simple, flash-free way to share moving pictures on computers that couldn’t handle huge data dumps.
Over the decades, it has maintained its grainy quality and still straddles the border between image and video. Its purpose, however, has undoubtedly shifted, now holding a formidable place in how we convey stories. And today, more than ever, we may have reason to worry.
Amidst the slew of criticisms hurled at us twentysomethings is the idea that our attention spans are shorter than they’ve ever been.
Feeding this argument, last month further, Twitter acquired Vine, a social app where users upload and share six-second videos. If its success follows that of its forbearer, Vine will be another testament to the fact that shorter is better.
But then, don’t feature-length films contradict this trend? Perhaps, but not for much longer.
Despite being at the frontier of entertainment in the early 20th century, theaters are losing their luster. Audiences are opting to see George Clooney in the privacy of their own homes and at the click of a button.
Last week, in an effort to suggest where this viewing trend could be heading, film distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories uploaded the entirety of its 88-minute film “It’s a Disaster” onto Vine before its theatrical release … six seconds at a time.
“We thought that six-second loops of video, edited in-phone and posted in real time was and will be the future of film distribution,” Bruce Farnsworth, the company’s minister of informative updates, said.
This stance was short-lived.
“We were very, very wrong,” he amended, and the movie was taken down the next day.
But the notion isn’t so far-fetched. In 2011, Montblanc hosted a one-second film festival, exhibiting some of the most poignant bits I’ve ever seen. It was a promotional ploy more than anything, but it revealed a greater message on the future of motion pictures.
We can still sit through hours-long James Cameron sagas — for now. But who’s to say 140-character prose and six-second montages aren’t in our future? Maybe this will be the next frontier.
Storytelling is taking on a new form, with GIFs and now Vine paving the way. Short films have been around for decades, but we seem to be redefining the very word.
With shorter narratives, we lose the depth of traditional visual storytelling. There is no speeding up emotional buildup or climax, just as there is no speeding up nostalgia.
Clips of a baby’s first haircut or viral ’80s infomercials prove that these new technologies are succeeding in the latter, so there is little evidence to suggest the former won’t follow suit.
We’re slowly losing the thirst for context, so who knows? One day, we might be granting Oscars to 60-second masterpieces.
Nadine Zylberberg is a College senior from Boca Raton, Fla. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @nadine_zyl. “twentysomething” appears every other Thursday.
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