The Misappropriation of the .gif file

To be honest, I wasn’t even actively thinking of ideas for my first blog post until this one hit me. I was perusing my Facebook feed (as I’m likely to do on a Thursday night when I should be doing homework) and I came upon a link to an article posted by one of my fellow NYU students. This particular link was a trademark Buzzfeed piece—a “top list”—24 Things Single  People Are Tired of Hearing with each item on the list illustrated by a .gif file, a low-pixel moving image that loops itself automatically once it finishes. Seeing this article finally got me thinking about the origins of the .gif. I frequently see the medium used on the popular forum site “Reddit”, but never really understood it more deeply than simply knowing what it was.

Though invented by CompuServe in 1987, the .gif file has only recently taken off under the conditions of today’s ever inter-connected social media web. Even the latest popular social media app, Vine, uses a similar concept, communicating messages to friends and followers in 6-second video clips. Though an interesting medium by which to communicate, the .gif has experienced rampant overuse in recent days, due to its popularity.

I can safely wager that the first time I ever saw a .gif, it was likely a home-video-like clip, with a cat chasing a laser dot across the living room floor (see above, file from ForGifs.com) ,or a horrifying trampoline accident (below, right, from WTFFun.com)—you know, something like that. In my opinion, this is the most applicable and appropriate use of the .gif. Nevertheless, I have witnessed many .gifs that lasted far longer than 10 seconds, and were artistic or informative creations that told a story or taught me something I didn’t already know (like the .gif file below from Businessinsider.com, showing the effects of a baseball on the bat of All-Star third baseman Miguel Cabrera).

.gif files are an interesting piece of content, focused on the memory of a select moment, and the potential is so high to liven up a news article, send a funny message to a friend, or lighten up an email memo to the office. But despite this, the .gif is now used to fuel profits more than contribute content to the message a news story sends.

From what I’ve seen, Buzzfeed possesses the most egregious cases of .gif misuse. What I’m talking about when I say “misuse” “overuse” is exemplified in the Buzzfeed story from above. I’ll officially acknowledge the title of this blog post now—Buzzfeed’s use of the .gif file as a newsmaking device is my biggest social media pet peeve. It’s the most annoying thing I’ve witnessed in my own personal experience using social media engines for the last 10 years of my life (ignoring excessive hashtag usage which is a cop-out of a topic and also something i’m guilty of myself.

The story feeds off the recent popularity of the .gif and beats it into the ground until it’s dead, as do many other Buzzfeed articles, who is famous for cheap, sensationalist lists that actually contribute very little journalistic content (see this story on why “Buzzfeed Sucks”, from The Baltimore Chop. Quite honestly, this story is completely pointless and repetitive. It feels as though it was composed by an unoriginal high-school girl who uses too many emoticons and watches too much TV. Each gif says nearly the same thing as the last one, and once again, Buzzfeed “feeds” us a halfhearted joke of a list that the greater population of young people on social media sites will eat up like a starved child at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

As has been shown by the rise of “Vine”, there is something desirable in being able to communicate a message with a short video clip- the moment needs to conveyed in a short amount of time, which leads to a quick punchline and often a comedic element to the message. Don Slater, author of “Personal Connections in the Digital Age”, would argue that a large appeal of the .gif its tendency toward easy storage and simple replicability. The .gif loops itself automatically, allowing for effortless consumption. Not only that, the .gif is a simple format and is very easily transferred from source to separate site.

Whatever the reason for its popularity, its clear that the .gif reached a “critical mass” of sorts—its popularity has spurred a conscious effort by media outlets to over-appropriate the .gif, and fit it into any type of story, even to create a story that functions solely on the lazy use of its .gifs (above). It may seem “counter-culture” and “hip” to scorn a newly-popular fad, but in the end, the overdoing of the .gif not merely a fad—it’s a factor in the leading to a degradation of the quality and content relevance of the media that we as members of the Earth’s greater “social network” consume on a daily basis. It’s a sad excuse for content and it’s my biggest pet peeve.

John Lake

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