President Obama gave a solemn address on the night that the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was announced. This GIF represented what the internet thought he should have done.
In this superlative example of the animated GIF, a terrier named Tito flips out over a big red ball.
This GIF of two boys dancing around to the song "Axle F" is also known as "Crazy Frog Brothers."
Taken from a 2008 episode of Survivor, this expression of fiendish glee at the suffering of others is the definition of schadenfreude.
Over the years, the meme Haters Gonna Hate has taken many forms – like that cat that walks around with IDGAF swagger – but this little dude's GIF strut by artist Omar Noory encapsulates the concept utterly and totally. Hate on, haters.
Originally pulled from a Conan O'Brien parody, this GIF imagines the least probable but most entertaining Oprah giveaway: BEES.
A kitten in Japan who injured her jaw (she's fine), OMG Cat catapulted to internet stardom when Justin Bieber parodied her expression as part of an April Fools' Day prank.
Dwight dancing on The Office is great. Dwight dancing in an unstoppable GIF loop is positively epic.
The photographs of Eadweard Muybridge were meant to capture motion. Decades later, GIFs enabled his photos to be put in motion.
The producers of Lost spun out their show's mystery for six very intense seasons before a finale that left some still wanting more answers. This single GIF expresses most of their (read: our) feelings on the subject in under 10 seconds.
Once upon a time the actor Brendan Fraser made a somewhat awkward clapping motion at an awards show … and it became the go-to GIF response for any manner of random message board posting. Poor guy may never want to cheer again.
Remember that viral video of a 3-D baby dancing to Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling" that used to show up in e-mail chains? Here it is in GIF form!
The descending sunglasses that signify the "Deal With It" meme have fallen on many a face. Here they fall on one of the most powerful faces in the world.
"I Regret Nothing" has been a popular internet response for years, but it is best represented by Spinning Disco Chicken – taken from a Domino's Pizza ad.
Anyone who saw McKayla Maroney's damn-near-perfect-vault (seriously, a judge dropped her jaw) during the 2012 Olympics could see it was a majestic feat. Anyone who watches it repeat like this (above) can see that it's just short of miraculous.
Nothing can show your distaste for someone else's internet comment better than a Meryl Streep moment from The Devil Wears Prada.
This GIF needs no introduction – if you don't know Nyan Cat you've never been on the internet and you're probably not reading this website. But to recap: This little guy went up on Tumblr in spring 2011 and hasn't stopped running since.
Nothing says "FAIL" quite as well as this moment from the life of Jean-Luc Picard.
No one ever knew just how excited one person could be to not be a parent until they saw this non-father's happy dance on a 2005 episode of The Maury Povich Show.
In January 2012, sultry singer Lana Del Rey went on Saturday Night Live and proceeded to "dance" by rotating around in a circle. Soon enough the web was posting countless GIFs of the singer dancing through all kinds of situations, including down the toilet (pictured).
Animated GIFs have become so huge. They’re everywhere. But why? On the surface, they’re pretty silly—a few frames of video, endlessly looping in time. There are GIFs of Star Trek‘s Picard facepalming, of Dwight from The Office dancing, of one penguin shoving another into the water. There’s Tom Cruise laughing, sports-play flameouts, tons of porn.
This is the sort of one-note joke that—like rickrolling or ermahgerd pics—normally fades after a few revolutions of the international meme cycle. But animated GIFs aren’t dying. They’re metastasizing: People festoon their Tumblrs with them, pass them around in email, and use them as Twitter avatars or signatures on discussion boards. Oxford Dictionaries even chose GIF as its USA Word of the Year for 2012. This is all the weirder considering that GIFs date back to the prebroadband late ’80s. As a medium, they’re quite old.
Ah, but it’s this ancient vintage that helps explain their true appeal. To really understand the value of animated GIFs, you have to go back even farther—to 1879 and Eadweard Muybridge’s “zoopraxiscope.”
Muybridge was a photographic pioneer who was obsessed with using photography to capture things that happen too fast for the human eye to see. In 1878, he famously showed what a horse looks like in full gallop by producing a series of timed pictures. Then he put them on a zoetropic wheel, spun it around, and produced a tiny looped video. It was the world’s first animated GIF.
He showed it throughout the US and Europe, and crowds loved it. They were particularly fascinated by how the zoopraxiscope let them study a single movement over and over—dogs racing, a man executing a somersault, wild bulls charging. (“The rapid changing positions,” as the Nottingham Express enthused, “were most instructive.”) The zoopraxiscope captured evanescence, replaying tiny moments of everyday life so we could see them in a new way.
And this is precisely why animated GIFs are still popular today. In the age of YouTube and cameraphones and TiVo, we’re increasingly inundated with moving images. But the animated GIF lets us stop and ponder a single moment in the stream, to resee something that otherwise would zip by unnoticed.Illustration: Raul Arias
Elspeth Reeve, a staff writer for the Atlantic Wire, is a huge fan of gymnastics but always had trouble explaining the artistry to her husband, because the movements flow by so quickly. So she’d show him animated GIFs of a particularly deft skill to point out hidden details. “My GIFs are a way to explain to him, ‘See how amazing this is?'” Reeve even reported on this summer’s Olympics for the Atlantic Wire website by producing dozens of GIFs that showcased brilliant, fleeting moves. It was mesmerizing.
She later used her GIF skillz for political commentary, by rapidly producing loops of debate moments—highlighting Joe Biden’s superenergetic facial expressions. Reeve even helped forensically settle an argument about Mitt Romney. He was accused of pulling out a cheat sheet in the first debate, but Reeve’s GIF of the movement (combined with photographs) proved it was just a handkerchief.
Ann Friedman, a columnist who has tracked GIF culture closely, thinks Tumblr users are evolving a rhetorical style for their usage. “I’ll go, Meryl Streep’s eye roll is the emotion I’m trying to convey here, and I’ll search for a GIF of that,” she says.
In a sense, the animated GIF illustrates what sharp viewers we’re becoming. Video used to be, as media critic Neil Postman worried, too slippery for analysis. But now that we have a simple tool—and grammar—for looping a half second of video, we’ve started watching with scholarly scrutiny. We’re looking for half seconds to excerpt.
One hundred and thirty years later, we’re still living in the age of Muybridge.
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