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 looping GIFs replicate the grinder’s tireless corkscrew churn. To see this footage once as a single video would be awful but somehow isolated; the GIFs force you to confront the brutal moment between life and death again and again, to admit that this reality can’t be outrun or scrolled away from. It’s a bottle, and we’re trapped inside.
Even in their lighter guise as illustrations of our feelings or responses, GIFs can’t always elude their gothic associations. In Return to Oz, the unofficial movie sequel released in 1985, Dorothy’s principal antagonist, Princess Mombi, has a chamber where rows of women’s heads sit behind glass cabinets, decapitated but alive, ready to be worn. At one point, during a chat with Dorothy, Mombi casually slips off her current head and fetches a fresh one from the cabinet. GIFs have given us all a digital version of this power. One minute we’re Meryl Streep whooping and clapping at the Oscars; the next we’re Luke Perry in his 90210 days, sitting in his car with his immaculate quiff, banging the steering wheel in teary frustration.
Like the living busts in Mombi’s collection, the people in these GIFs have no say in how they’ll be used, which gives the images a haunting power, a frisson of ghostly possession. If you’re a Streep fan, it’s eerie to see her jump to her feet in praise of a tweet you find despicable. “Not in my name!” becomes “Not with her face!” It’s eerier still to see Perry bang the steering wheel at the news of his own premature death. Using someone else’s face as a billboard for your own feelings has uneasy political implications. For the cultural critic Lauren Michele Jackson, the fact that black people appear in such a disproportionate number of reaction GIFs—especially those deployed by white people—makes sense: It’s minstrelsy in digital form.
But the medium’s many transformations are not yet complete. With the rise of accessible deepfake technology, it has become possible for users to superimpose their own faces on stock GIFs. This latest twist turns the Mombi analogy inside out. Now, instead of one person having many heads, many people have the same head. (Taylor Swift, Halle Berry, James Van Der Beek—all me!) Inserting your own face is, weirdly, a kind of unmasking: It was always supposed to be us eating popcorn, us rolling our eyes, us strutting down the hall like Madmen’s Peggy Olson, a feminist clapback in plaid. And so deepfaked GIFs achieve the tricky thing of simultaneously telling a joke and explaining it. The results may be technologically sophisticated, but they’re about as witty as those face-in-the-hole cutout boards at carnivals.
If GIFs seem monstrous, it’s because they are, like any good monster, hybrid creatures. They embody both the wonderful animation and the restrictive compulsions of digital life. When we watch them, we get caught in their strange circularity. But we also see in them a reflection of our less noble habits. Whether the surveys say we check our phones 47, 52, 80, or 100 times a day, we all know the tight loops into which we so easily coil. Who doesn’t have a circuit of favorite sites and apps, spun through again and again with a GIF’s inevitability? In their combination of poetic novelty and repetition, progress and paralysis, GIFs echo the complex beating of our online pulses. On the other side of the glass, the bottle imp sticks out its tongue in teasing recognition.