Those wonderful looping animations we call GIFs are an unlikely story of survival in an age when digital formats come and go like the wind. The lure of the decades-old GIF format has caused people to ignore its flaws, but those looking to bring the format into modern times might just be inadvertently drowning its very soul.
As much fun as GIFs are, they are not well-equipped for modern interneting. That’s not really a surprise, since the format was developed in 1987 — basically biblical times. Its method of compression was meant for teeny tiny images composed of only a handful of colours. Today’s GIFs are usually made from video clips containing thousands if not millions of colours at much higher resolutions.
Converting this type of content into a GIF yields large file sizes that hog bandwidth and can slow down webpages to a crawl. They are the bane not only of users with slow connections or old computers, but of website operators who have to make sure they have enough bandwidth to accommodate thousands of these files.
The task of modernising the GIF is being tackled as we speak by a number of players in the online image game. The most recent is Imgur, which hyped its new GIFv format (which isn’t really new, but more on this in a minute) last year and this week released a tool for converting video clips to GIFs. GIFv promises better quality with smaller files. As Sam Gerstenzang, Imgur’s product director explains:
GIFV seamlessly wraps 2 video formats and the original GIF together because the user shouldn’t care what the underlying format is, just about the expectation that GIFs are short, looping and without sound. Under the hood, there’s a WebM file, a MP4 and GIF. We dynamically swap based on the user’s browser and the file size of the GIF to ensure the best “GIF-like” experience.
Awesome, but the name is a misnomer. GIFv is not a GIF at all. It’s not even really a file! It’s a set of HTML5 instructions that converts the video clip to a highly compressed MP4 or WebM file, then tells it to play automatically and loop forever, just like a GIF. The result is better quality and faster loading. Others are offering similar services to Imgur, like the site gfycat.com, which also uses HTML5 to display videos in a GIF like way. Twitter also proudly touted their own GIF support, but is simply converting them into looping video files.
Unlike true GIFs, GIFv and other HTML5 variations are tethered inextricably to the browser they are viewed in. You can share them as an embeddable object within various services and sites, but you can’t download and view them on your computer. You can’t email them, or archive them locally, except as video files. Imgur says it will always give users the option to download the actual GIF file, but then you’re giving up all the advantages of GIFv.
Here’s an embedded GIFv that I made with Imgur’s Video to GIF tool. I could only display it on this page by copying a string of code from Imgur and pasting here. Looks nice! But if you try and download the file, you get a video file that does not loop on its own and will confuse the hell out of your friends if you try and put it in an email.
Call me old-fashioned, but I see the contained, portable nature of the GIF as part of what makes it so great, if not the whole of it. The fact that you can send it, view it, post it absolutely anywhere with a near guarantee that it will be seen on the other end is essential. There’s a purity to it that makes it the folky, populist digital artefact that it is.
We live in the age of the embed, where everything is proprietary. Media on the internet is consumed according to which service it is tied to, and only a handful of elite purveyors with the resources to make their services essential control how media is displayed. We don’t share video files.
Instead we share a Vine, or a YouTube. Just imagine if a video form existed that was so universal that it could be viewed on any computer, any browser, no matter what the version number or specs and without the necessity of embed code. That’s what we have with the humble GIF! Formats like GIFv are a step away from that democratic state.
For Imgur’s part, they say they recognise the trade-off in their new format and are working to ameliorate it. The great rethinking of the GIF is still in its early stages. We don’t know how this will play out. It could be that one particular format, whether it’s a variation of GIFv or some other solution, reaches such popularity that it becomes completely widespread and everything is just fine and dandy. I hope so! But competition is fierce, and matching the simple universality of the GIF is a staunch challenge. Until that day comes, I’ll stick with what works, and it ends in .gif.