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Animated GIFs are back. I remember writing my first website, complete with ‹blink›ing text, a garishly tiled background, and an animated GIF (a rotating arrow, as I recall). It was 1996, after all. But where the first two crimes against design have been chucked in the dustbin of the Wayback Machine, the third seems stronger than ever.

For your consideration:

loris
Slow Loris eating.

Animated GIFs are short loops of discrete images that produce the illusion of movement. It’s an old technique. Here’s the looped image that got Thomas Edison the patent on the first “motion picture”: Fred Ott’s Sneeze (rendered, appropriately enough, as an animated GIF):

Fred_Otts_Sneeze_1894

If we want to view film history as a straight line, we can say that Edison’s Kinetoscope begat the Lumiere brothers’ Cinematograph begat cinema.

Kinetoscope
Edison’s Kinetoscope

Leads to…

Cinematographe

… the Lumiere brothers’ Cinematograph, leads to…

Projecteur_cinématographique_35mm

cinema.

On the other hand, as Lev Manovich points out in The Language of New Media, media history tends to repeat itself. So now, as computers redefine the way we watch moving images, we seem to be back where we started:

The introduction of Quick Time in 1991 can be compared to the introduction of the Kinetoscope in 1892: Both were used to present short loops, both featured images approximately two by three inches in size, both called for private viewing rather than collective exhibition (313).

So why are we back to the Kinetoscope? Consider the key difference between Edison’s machine and that of the Lumieres (and other inventors at the time): the Kinetoscope’s peephole could only accommodate a single viewer, whereas the Cinematograph was designed from the beginning as a projection device, on the model of the magic lantern.

Laterna_magica_Aulendorf

magic lantern

Needless to say, the circumstances of viewing change our experience of the object viewed. Watching a projected film in a theater, we experience mutual empathy—em (in) pathos (feeling), a translation of the German Einfühlung, “feeling your way into something.” Via empathy, we are transported into the film’s emotional and ideational matrix (though perhaps less literally than Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr).

To get at this idea of shared involvement, look at the difference created by the prepositions in the phrases “I’m in pain” and “I’m into pain,” or “I’m in a pickle” and “I’m into pickles.” The “into” introduces an implied community of like-minded (and like-feeling) individuals. That’s what it is to be “into” a movie, a director, a band or a hobby. Even when we watch a movie alone, beamed through liquid crystals rather than projected onto a screen, we expect to “feel our way into” it, just as the rest of the audience has—an asynchronously shared emotional experience.

The animated GIF, on the other hand, tends to be viewed by an isolated individual at their computer. Like the Kinetoscope, it announces its pleasure as solitary and fleeting: a sudden, often unexpected burst of affect (usually humor) amidst the humdrum of our digital day-to-day. The duration is too short and the surrounding .docs too distracting to allow for empathy, let alone catharsis. There will never be a tragic GIF.

The animated GIF (along with its cousin, the Vine video) demonstrates the dialectical relationship between technologies of delivery and media content. If the development of film projection at the turn of the 20th century both enabled and registered new techniques of generating collective affect, computers and the internet have co-evolved with an increasingly atomized media landscape, from à la carte programming and user-created content[1] to precision-targeted advertising. The internet has given us vast new capacities to curate our own media world, but at the cost of shared emotional experience.

Super-short-form video is the reductio ad absurdum of the general trend away from collective viewing. This is not necessarily a bad thing—the extorted emotional buy-in of mainstream cinema and television has had its share of convincing critics (cf., for instance, Adorno). The real question is: who is hailing us with that 2nd person singular pronoun in “YouTube”? Can we harness the power of crowdsourced content to create real individual autonomy? (The Multitube?) Or does customized, socially-networked media masquerade as participatory experience to conceal a strategy of divide and conquer? We might call it the pathos of the “share” button.


[1] Axel Bruns coined the delightfully ungainly portmanteau “produsage” to describe such user-made content.

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