The animated gif

A window to open learning?

I must confess that about 6 months ago I would have had no further views on the animated gif beyond,

Animated gifs? Meh..

This was before I joined and open online course on Digital Storytelling called DS106. The tweet above tells you how far I have come in challenging my own views on the animated gif. I now have an immense amount of data on it, I make them myself on Tumblr and defend them as art to fellow course participants who do not share my liking of them. In my conversations over the last few days I decided to ask on Twitter #whygif? This post is a personal reflection on why I gif and my first excursion into Medium as a medium.

In truth, I love them and do not know why. I am no artist, I am a psychologist. Since joining DS106 I have been creating ‘digital artefacts’ and some have of late started to be tagged #gifart. The animated gif used as the title image is an example of this trend in my learning about digital storytelling.

When I say I do not know why, I mean I could not answer the question from an art appreciation point of view. I love some and I hate others.

“It’s a more organic and intuitive medium to relate an experience — more so than a photo or a video. Think of how we recollect memories: close your eyes and think of something from your past. You don’t see a frozen still image — you see GIFs! Even when we dream at night we see fragments of events that collectively create some kind of narrative which we assemble into a story when we wake up. Even when we daydream we don’t watch a full-feature uninterrupted film in our heads — we think in fragments, often non-linear. “ ELLE MULIARCHYK

This quote helped me see the light — yes! As a psychologist this makes sense to me. We recognise in the animated gif something akin to our inner world. We think ‘in gif’ and this is why in spite of all the criticism of the medium it refuses to die. Some people at MIT are now studying it as a separate language. We may soon be asking, do you speak gif?

Michael Branson Smith talks about it in terms of it making the impossible visible,

So never mind the endless perfect moment, loop a portal into the impossible.
Peter Pan giffing

Those of us who love them often talk about the special nature of finding that perfect moment. Michael expands this to creating imposible moments through a gif — we can dream in gif!

Daniel Dennett talks about the ‘gappiness’ or multiple drafts of consciousness. We are deluded when we assume we experience a unified and uninterrupted stream of consciousness. I love what Susan Blackmore has to say about this,

“Every time I seem to exist, this is just a temporary fiction and not the same ‘‘me’’ who seemed to exist a moment before, or last week, or last year. This is tough, but I think it gets easier with practice”

May be learning to speak gif is not only art but also a means to enlightenment? We get to experience the ‘gappiness’ of conciousness as we watch moments loop forever, and all the more so when we create them ourselves.

That humans love repetition in music and in other ways is no secret to psychologist or marketeers. Yet for some, it is this endless repetition that is problematic. We fill in the gaps of what is not there in our drive for a coherent narrative as shown by the Kuleshov effect on film.

This effect works with audio too, do click on this link and listen to your first auditory gif. I love how the effect happens when we listen as well as when we watch.

In my explorations I was glad to find a rule of thumb to make good animated gifs:

Great GIFs you can watch forever without getting annoyed. There is no formula of how to do it — it’s a kind of magic. I play with mine until they reach the certain “groove” where I could watch them forever, then I know it’s right.

Is it ‘just’ our need to fill in the gaps and the familiarity of repetition, that gives animated their appeal? And what about those who do not speak gif? Is it about the type of gif? I have been considering making a typlogy of gifs: timeless moments, sensory abuse, stereoscopic wiggle, fluid or discontinuous, film scenes, abstract… and then it starts to sound like a typology of art styles which I certainly am not qualified to create:

Some big general categories are Realistic (photographic), Expressive (less realistic with lots feeling), Fantastic (surrealistic) (real but impossible — as in a dream), Formal (very orderly and controlled), Nonobjective (without subject matter), Abstract (not realistic).

After all my explorations I keep coming back to the idea of the title and my opening tweet — the animated gif for me has been a window to open learning. I found DS106 through the amazing animated gifs participants on the course make and choosing an example does feel arbitrary, there are so many you can watch on our DS106 Gif TV. The one below left me speechless with wonder when I first saw it,

Rear Window giffing by Michael Branson Smith

and as I stopped worrying and learnt to love the gif, I woke up one morning and found myself making #gifart as an open educator. I no longer ask #whygif but #whatisthegif and the answer for me is simple: It’s a kind of magic that makes you learn and smile.