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SXSW 2013
SXSW 2013

Moving images: Tracing the GIF's animated history

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Austin Photo Set: News_GIF_Aleks_Mar 2013
Courtesy of Courtesy of SXSW

Many a link-baiting slideshow and BuzzFeed post have been using animated GIFS, the moving images assembled from videos, sequences of photos or original animations.

But how did the initially cheesy, early computer and Internet age animation trick using a file format become the au courant method for obsessing over celebrities and being web-ready shorthand for expressing emotions? SXSW has the answer: According to the GIF artists and writers in “The Economy of the GIF,” you can blame your phone and microblogging platform Tumblr.

The GIF lineage goes something like this: they were first used in website banners and as quickie animations in those quaint AOL disc days of the Internet — and then Flash animation came along. Remember when websites resembled the futuristic, highly-interactive interfaces of science fiction films? With those slick drop-down menus and fancy moving ads? That was Flash.

Flash still exists, but with Apple and its iPhone (which famously does not support Flash-based animations or videos), web designers and animators and branding gurus had to rethink their media strategies. Suddenly, entire websites were rendered unreadable on phones and other mobile screens.

So as Flash fell out of fashion, simpler web designs prevailed and led to a GIF renaissance of sorts — because GIFs will still display on phones and tablets and other magic, mini computer devices. And it helps that social networking sites and phone web browsers have made using the Internet much more photo-centric (hence, Tumblr).

Plus, GIFs, says writer Lindsey Weber (who’s done some GIF work for BuzzFeed and New York magazine) are better representations of how we consume the Internet in 2013.

“[GIFs] span this space between photos and videos,” Weber says. “The GIF takes the best parts of a photo and the best parts of a video and puts them together. It’s just a better way to ingest that.”

And they’ve become so wildly popular, argues artist Jimmy Repeat (who’s GIFed for MTV in the past), they’ve become a new art form all in themselves.

“GIF is the new medium because it’s more of a challenge than a static image,” he says.

Perhaps their greatest claim to legitimacy is their looming legal precedent: Weber says GIF-related lawsuits and copyright cases are just around the bend — she’s come up against all kinds of rights issues with the GIFs she worked with.

But for now, there’s still plenty of GIF fun to be had. Just go on Tumblr and get lost for days.

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