What is a good alternative for YTMND
After a while now finally the fifth and for the time being the last part of the GIF cultural history, which describes the development up to the most recent times and thus also describes the mostly still well-known aspects. For the events further back, the previous parts of this series are of course recommended: Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
In the more than 20 years that the World Wide Web has been publicly accessible, GIFs have been a constant companion. Throughout the entire period, despite individual lows, their popularity just doesn't seem to diminish. This became particularly clear on the 25th anniversary of the format in 2012, when GIFs were also recognized by the public as an independent cultural technique, mainly through the many media reports. As part of web design, however, GIFs hardly play a role anymore; other means have established themselves here. The animation is no longer in the foreground as a technical property of the file format, but as the appearance of an entertainment medium. GIFs are no longer (or only rarely) used as background for other content, as they are an animated part of the page design or exist as images only when accompanied by a text. They have emancipated themselves and have become the scene of the action themselves. From a technical point of view, of course, they have the same framework conditions that GIFs have always had, but they are now used much more as a narrative medium.
Their disadvantages, such as the lack of sound and the lack of interaction (GIF animations cannot be paused or rewound) are not a damper for the increasing popularity, but simply seem to have been recognized as the framework conditions with which to work in the GIF format . Not only are these restrictions not perceived as an obstacle, they are even positively understood as defining characteristics of the medium. This development is roughly comparable to the changed reception of 8-bit music. In early console and computer games, this type of music was the standard for lack of more powerful technology. Because computers have long been able to handle higher-resolution audio data, 8-bit music is not neglected. Instead, it is used artistically as its own genre, which has a certain retro charm, which can basically also be said of GIFs.
In the 2000s, GIFs were no longer just an internet phenomenon as a whole, but certain individual GIFs became so famous that they became memes. Even before that, some particularly well-known GIFs were spreading like wildfire through the Internet, two of the most prominent examples from the 90s are the dancing baby and the dancing hamster. But the number of such very well-known GIFs, which are not only an animated element of a page navigation, but also attract attention as a separate work, only increased blatantly in the new millennium. The trend to show dances, animals or even dancing animals in animated GIFs continues to this day.
The further the development of the Internet advances into the present, the poorer the literary source situation with regard to GIFs. It almost seems as if the relevance of the Internet for science has decreased drastically since its use became accessible to the general public with the introduction of the World Wide Web and it was no longer primarily located at universities. Fortunately, it is a property of the Internet that it is fully self-contained, so that the most extensive history of the Internet is not in libraries, but in itself, if you look deep enough. This is also the case for the recent history of GIFs. To understand this, it is worth taking a look at the numerous retrospectives that appeared on several blogs and other websites for the 25th anniversary of the format, just like in "conventional" publication media.
The Daily Dot - by its own name the "hometown newspaper of the world wide web" - dealt extensively with GIFs in numerous articles, both with new trends and with the preparation of their history. The growing interest in reporting on GIFs on the anniversary of the format was also expressed there. For example in an interview with Olia Lialina, an artist who already used GIFs in an artistic way in the nineties instead of flashing colorful pages. She outlines three phases in the development of animated GIFs:
1990s culture: GIFs contain classic animation; the backgrounds are transparent so they can be used in many graphical contexts.
Beginning of the 21st century: Big, motionless, glittering (or other automatically generated) graphics used on Myspace and other PimpMyProfile-style social networks.
Current time: Looped sequences made from video captures of movies or TV shows, distributed in blogs, not integrated into the page design surrounding it.
On the one hand, it represents the already mentioned difference between its initial use as a design element and its current use as an entertainment medium. On the other hand, it notes that the first-mentioned area of application was still popular at the beginning of the 21st century. Especially on Myspace it was observed that the individual pages of the users were not designed by professional web designers, but by the users themselves. An easily accessible format such as GIF was ideal for this. The glitter effect that Lialina speaks of is also a form of animation, but it differs significantly from the previously and now common form of serial image GIFs. In contrast, whether glitter GIFs are rated positively or negatively is of course a matter of taste. Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied offer a clear comparison of the two varieties in their “Comparative History of Classic Animated GIFs and Glitter Graphics”. Or in the “Animated GIFs timeline”, which extends even further into today's Internet.
The transition from use as a design element to the current use of GIFs cannot be clearly delimited in terms of time. It falls roughly in the period from the mid-noughties to the early decades. Several circumstances came together here: The WWW increasingly became a constantly sought-after place of social life, in which the roles of sender and receiver were more and more united. The terms “social network” and “Web 2.0” coined during this period are evidence of this. On the technical side, the development of video streaming should be emphasized, which at first glance could be seen as an emerging competition to GIFs (but in truth, video-like, narrative GIFs were not at all widespread before, but only emerged recently). And last but not least, the patent rights associated with the GIF format finally expired during the period in question (see Part 4).
As a kind of lexicon of memes, the Know Your Meme page is a profitable point of contact for both examples and the background to the development of various Internet phenomena. As a meme collection point, the site may not enjoy the best reputation among those responsible for distributing memes. But the authors endeavor to find out the background to the Internet phenomena in detail, and refer to reliable source material. The term “Pre-YouTube Era” is used there for the period in the history of GIFs introduced above. The name also makes a wonderful analogy to Pre-cinema, which describes the phase in the late 19th century when those mechanical moving image media were popular, which from today's perspective are considered to be the forerunners of cinema.
The pre-YouTube era is consequently a transitional phase in which images and audio content as well as animation techniques were already distributed on the Internet and even videos could already be found on the Internet, but the integration of videos on the Internet on the current scale was not yet conceivable. Internet sites that enabled the mass distribution of videos emerged in the middle of the first decade (YouTube in 2005, Vimeo 2004), but only experienced a massive increase in usage after a few years. The successful phase of the page ytmnd.com (short for “You're The Man Now, Dog”) also fell during this period, where users could create their own, simple pages on which music or other audio content played in a loop while an image (often a GIF) can be seen multiple times as tiles as a page background. In the pre-YouTube era, YTMND was an important collection point for internet phenomena and thus also for GIFs and laid the foundation for their use as an entertainment medium. Even as YouTube grew and was used more and more, YTMND was still very popular for a while, so that the GIF culture was kept alive (see article on knowyourmeme.com).
Initially, video integration from YouTube and other sites was not yet possible or only possible to a very limited extent. Until recently, the 4chan forum or its German version Krautchan did not offer the possibility of embedding videos directly on the site, so that a maximum of links to videos can be given. * ¹ In such cases, GIFs offered and still offer a simple substitute for videos. In recent times, GIFs have therefore often been found, which are only excerpts from videos, as Lialina mentioned in the interview quote above. As a middle ground between image and video, GIFs had created a niche here in which they were established as an independent narrative tool.
From the many memes that come from the forums on 4chan, the Reaction GIFs a good example of the establishment of GIFs as an independent cultural technique. While smileys of various shapes were already known from emails, chats and forums from earlier times, there is space for a picture in every post on 4chan and comparable sites. What could be more natural than to express the mood of the article or the authors in that image instead of a smiley? A much greater density of information is offered there than in a small smiley face within the text. Fernando Alfonso Ⅲ, author at The Daily Dot, therefore calls Reaction GIFs “new emoticons”, ie new versions of smileys, for good reason. He sees the decisive advantage of GIFs over smileys as follows: with an image, and an animated one at that, a much larger spectrum of possible motifs is available to express one's own feelings than with schematic faces, which sometimes only consist of ASCII characters are composed.
But GIFs are not only spread on 4chan. Tumblr accounts for a not inconsiderable part of their current popularity. Unlike, for example, on Facebook or, until recently, on Twitter * ², the integration of GIFs is permitted, so that it has become a popular contact point for GIFs in general and GIF artists in particular, as Olia Lialina also notes. GIFs and memes in general that come from 4chan, Tumblr, Reddit and other sites have been so popular for years that they are collected on specially set up sites: cheezburger.com, 9gag.com and knowyourmeme.com are just a few of them. Senorgif.com, 4gifs.com and the “Reaction GIFs Archive” specialize in GIFs. Supported by the hype of recent years, GIF search engines have even seen the light of day, on the one hand the page giphy.com and on the other hand the GIF category of Google search. The spread of the Internet on mobile devices is also having an impact on GIF culture, because tools for GIF production and distribution are available for mobile phones with cameras, such as the GifBoom or Cinemagram apps, to name just two of many. Again, Lialina takes the position:
Personally I was very surprised that there are apps for making GIFs, because I see apps as a force biased towards killing the Web […] And GIFs are the spirit of the Web!
With such tools, the always simple handling of GIFs has been simplified even further. They can now be created automatically with everyday objects and in a few moments. Alfonso describes GIFs as a kind of "pidgin language for the Internet" as such a universal means of communication, which is easily accessible but does not offer all theoretically possible functions.
The fact that GIFs have held up against MNG, APNG or Flash is probably due to three factors from a technical point of view.
First of all, GIF has been a standard format since the beginning of the WWW and is still supported by all browsers, which is only possible with additional plugins for all the others mentioned (except for APNG, but this is also not supported natively by all browsers and has only been natively supported for a few years ).
Second, all patents relating to the GIF format have expired, so that no more fees would even be due for decoder and encoder. Where GIFs are already supported, there is no longer any reason to put an end to licensing problems. Quite the opposite: thanks to the free usage option, new tools for creating GIFs on the (mobile) internet have recently emerged.
And third, the ease of use of GIFs remains their great strength. This is by far not sufficient for demanding animations and in this area GIF is no longer used to any significant extent. But it offers the right prerequisites for the changed demands in the so-called Web 2.0. When the line between producers and consumers of media content blurs and all internet users become broadcasters, GIFs have the potential to become a fundamental tool that everyone can master thanks to their ease of use.
From these three points, however, there arises another probably much more serious circumstance that was able to secure the monopoly of GIFs. Due to the inadequate support of APNG and MNG in browsers, there was no reason to switch to these formats if the largest possible audience was to be addressed. And if hardly any images are disseminated as APNG, no APNG culture can develop as an alternative to GIFs.
The main distribution channel for GIFs is undoubtedly the Internet, for which the format was developed. But a very clear indication of the great relevance that it has acquired is the spread of the phenomenon outside of the Internet. The Oxford Dictionaries USA chose "GIF" as the verb for the word of the year:
to create a GIF file of (an image or video sequence, especially relating to an event)
Although one could argue about whether the use of the word as a verb is particularly popular, this distinction marks the recognition of GIFs as a separate cultural technique. The artistic dimensions of the format are taken into account through exhibitions and festivals on / for GIFs, for example at the “Moving the Still” festival. In addition, references to the moving image devices of the early days of cinema are made in numerous art projects, for example with the "Animated Gif Player", which also shows animated cat pictures outside of the Internet with a device similar to the phenakistiscope.
And with this arc back to the mechanical moving image media of pre-cinema, this series of articles on the history of animated GIFs ends first. What doesn't end there is the story of the GIFs. Current developments such as the currently ongoing format battle between GIFs and WebM / MP4 will in future be considered in this blog as well as a comparison of GIFs with the earlier mechanical moving image media - whereby remarkable similarities can be found in the respective developments of the phenomena.
1 - Since April 2014, videos in WebM format can be attached to forum posts. At the time this text was written (early 2013), videos were still excluded from imageboards.
2 - The GIF integration on Twitter is only a pretense. An uploaded GIF is converted and displayed as an MP4 video in a loop.
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