It’s a memory fit for the mantelpiece: A pair of newlyweds, fresh from the altar, walk between rows of well-wishers, happily ducking the white flower petals being thrown over them. The sunlight falls just so, glinting on the groom’s new ring and tracing a halo around his man bun. But this isn’t actually a snapshot; it’s a framed “GIF portrait,” a moving image encased in acrylic, part of an ad campaign that made the rounds before Valentine’s Day. In about 10 seconds, the same newlyweds will teleport back to square one and start the recessional all over again. On they’ll go into infinity, always sailing, never arriving.
GIFs have been on the march a long time, in their two-steps-forward-two-steps-back kind of way. Invented in 1987, they spent decades in quasi-hibernation before emerging (and re-emerging, and re-re-emerging) as the lingua franca of the social internet. Now they jitter at us from emails and texts and tweets and forum threads—and, apparently, from mantels across the land. The time seems right, then, to confess a thought I’ve long harbored: GIFs can be glorious, but they are also deeply perverse. They’re shuddering icons of digital life, reflecting both its spirit of innovation and its moments of claustrophobia. Let’s start in the light and descend into the cellar.
GIFs at their finest are spontaneous expressions of poetry. While it’s true that some quickly exhaust themselves into cliché—how many times do we need to see that Big Brother contestant spit out her coffee?—a perfectly placed GIF releases joy into the day. Someone posts a video of their infant tottering around to music from a favorite toy; someone else replies with a seven-second loop of Theresa May, the former British prime minster, dancing jerkily during a state visit to Nairobi. In such cases, GIFs show off the human mind’s flair for metaphor, its ingenious way of seeing that this is somehow like that. And as with all metaphors, the less similar this and that are, the more hilarious or breathtaking the correspondence becomes. The distance between them produces a kind of voltage; the bigger the gap, the more electrifying the metaphor.
In Vladimir Nabokov’s final address to his literature class at Cornell, he told his students, “I have tried to teach you to feel a shiver of artistic satisfaction,” to share with the artist “the joys and difficulties of creation.” Part of the fun of GIFs is this sharing in the creator’s achievement—how they display their knowledge of obscure films, maybe, or their genius at matching a real-world event with a minor moment from Breaking Bad. Nabokov uses the ambiguous word “shiver,” which hints at both excitement and unease, and for me GIFs are similarly charged. Here, I’m afraid, we come to the cellar steps.
Dwelt on too long, GIFs begin to seem like a constricted, claustrophobic invention. The people caught inside resemble imps trapped in bottles, condemned to speak the same lines over and over, inaudible through the glass. They bring to mind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” published in 1892, in which an unnamed woman—confined to bed by her husband because of “a slight hysterical tendency”—becomes obsessed with the pattern of the wallpaper in her room. As she lies there, she tries to make sense of its repeating design. Where do the loops begin and end? “Looked at in one way,” the narrator thinks, each strip of wallpaper “stands alone.” Taken together, however, the strips produce “interminable grotesques” that “run off in great slanting waves of optic horror.” Eventually, the repetitions so distort the narrator’s sense of reality that she comes to believe she’s imprisoned in the wallpaper.
GIFs can have a similar psychic effect. Four years ago, in an excellent essay for the digital magazine Real Life, Monica Torres explored the ethics of making GIFs from tragedy—like using dash cam footage of the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager in Chicago, by a white city cop. For Torres, the GIF’s looping form resembles the shape of our thoughts in the aftermath of a harrowing experience, when it can be hard to stop the mind from replaying the horror. “By collapsing time, creating a world with no beginning or end,” Torres argued, GIFs “reproduce trauma’s symptoms—feelings of isolation, repetition compulsion, and a state of bodily helplessness.”
As Torres also observed, optic horror can sometimes be put to productive ends. Last month, the animal rights organization PETA published a blog post titled “Do You Eat Eggs? If So, You’re Supporting Grinding Live Chicks.” It included three GIFs of male chicks toppling from conveyor belts into the lethal machinery below. (Because males will never grow up to lay eggs, the dairy industry typically kills them.) Here the loop