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Watch A Brief History Of The Animated GIF

If I had to explain the Internet to an E.T., I’d call up a bunch of animated GIFs. They’re the purest distillation of the web, its unofficial universal language. Think about it: They’re repetitive, they provide instant gratification, and they fetishize cats.

So you can look at the evolution of animated GIFs as shorthand for the evolution of the Internet itself. This brief documentary spells it all out, whisking us back in time to GIFs’ earliest, crudest incarnations (American flags, "under construction" signs, flames) then taking us through to the sophisticated cinemagraphs and art-minded compositions that ping-pong around the web today.

It was not a straightforward ascent. Introduced in 1987, animated GIFs enjoyed explosive popularity in the heady, Netscape-browsing days of the mid '90s. Flashing Stars and Stripes gave way to jumpy mailboxes and "EMAIL" blasting across your computer screen. They were the perfect embodiment of the overstimulated brainpan of the first Internet boom. Then the social networks of Web 2.0 swept in, turning the web into a bitchy high-school classroom, and suddenly animated GIFs looked like the weird, smelly kid who nobody wants to Friend. It wasn’t until 2007 that they began rising through the e-ranks again. "People start to realize that you can use GIFs for tons of different things," Patrick Davison of MemeFactory says. "Now that we’re in 2011, 2012, there’s more GIFs online and you also have way more places to put them. Things like Reddit and Tumblr, WordPress, and even Twitter."

An instant classic from Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck
One of many gifs capturing Kubric’s 2001.

Importantly, the tools for creating animated GIFs are more accessible than ever before, which has paved the way for wild experimentation that often wanders into the precincts of art. People make GIFs of computer glitches, TV shows, movies, sushi trains, grumpy cats cross-stitching in a granny chair—you name it. Pamela Reed and Matthew Rader have used animated GIFs to reinvent fashion spreads. Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck have used them to reinvent photography. Once the odd stepchild of a cornball mainstream, GIFs are now moving out of the computer and looping through the culture in general. It’s the story of the Internet writ small. Only with more fur.