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The Strange Allure Of Visual Loops, From Zoetropes To GIFs And Vine

Why we can’t stop watching things that never stop playing.

The Strange Allure Of Visual Loops, From Zoetropes To GIFs And Vine

The emergence of the animated GIF over the last few years has made short visual loops a regular part of our media diet, but the phenomenon is not an entirely new one. As Chris Baraniuk points out in an essay on The Machine Starts, loops found their way into the Victorian consciousness through zoetropes, devices that turned successions of still illustrations into animations when spun. The repeating images produced by both GIFs and zoetropes, Baraniuk argues, are similar in that they’re "devoid of a true beginning and end," dislodged from time in a mesmerizing and vaguely unnerving way.

A recent development, however, stands to make loops an even bigger part of our lives: the debut of Vine, Twitter’s new bite-size video service which lets users create their own loops with a few taps of their smartphone screens. When viewed on Twitter’s website, the clips play automatically and loop endlessly by default, transforming even the most mundane clips into, well, something else.

But what is that something? And why do we find it so irresistible? Baraniuk, who notes early in his essay that the zoetrope was commonly referred to as "the wheel of the devil" in its heyday, puts forward an unsettling theory:

That the visual loops enabled by computer technology are always, in my opinion, disturbing, is perhaps best explained by noting a diametrical clash of ideals in human culture. The broken record, the Groundhog Day effect, the punishments of Hades which involved endless repetition, all of these things, as the term "wheel of the devil" indicates, signify disruption through relentless order. The complete absence of teleology and catharsis within the loop destroys our sense of self, our idea of progress, our intention to accomplish anything.

That admittedly is a pretty heavy reading of what’s going on, but something about it rings true. Essentially, the idea is that every GIF is its own endlessly repeating, eternally unresolvable struggle. And now that we’ve got Vine, we’re all at risk of being Sisyphus.

Read more in Baraniuk’s essay, "'The Wheel of the Devil’: On Vine, GIFs and the Power of the Loop."