Gifs lit up Web 1.0 like Las Vegas—the torches, crystal balls, humping muppets, dancing babies, mailboxes opening and closing to indicate that you’ve got mail—all signaling that crimson castles, their divorced dads clubs, and in-browser spaceships were hip and exciting places to be. In honor of an arbitrary anniversary, marking the 24th year since Netscape Navigator 2.0 first supported looping animated gifs on the browser, I thought I’d appreciate some equally-arbitrary duck-themed gifs. Allow me to explain.
First, a disclaimer: The gif is not the internet’s most incredible invention. “The loop!” they say. Loops are as old as animation, I say! Gifs exploit readers’ brains’ craving for pattern recognition. They force cats into situations cats don’t tend to appreciate. They spam Twitter threads. They scream “HMMMMMM, OK” for some reason.
But the loop. The digital magic tricks. The silly, superfluous nature of a two-second looping cartoon, executed flawlessly. Like a bottle episode, gifs do stuff but never change, as perfectly self-contained as the file format itself, which you can drop from the internet to your desktop to a text document, and it’ll work. (At least, it used to!) A gif is made for sharing. (At least, it was!) But, as Popular Mechanics has pointed out in an indispensable gif history, gifs’ days are numbered by third-party hosting services and Instagram and Facebook and Twitter’s video file formats that no longer let you drag-and-drop and see every frame, right there, on the Preview sidebar. (Even the animated gifs in this post will not be gifs by the time you’re looking at them, because Kinja turns them into videos.) I miss them. And I value duck gifs most of all.
Ducks—because ducks haven’t been subjugated or humiliated by gifs like the house pet, politicized like the eagle, or Hallmark-carded like the swan. Ducks do things dogs and cats don’t: run in herds, move with grace, follow other animals, bob and fly in hypnotic patterns. You can’t make a duck ride a Roomba while wearing a sweatshirt. Ducks can’t smile, they can’t pose with toothbrushes, they can’t open their eyes wide in sadness when you give them a bath. They can only stamp their flippers, but their reasons for doing so are ambiguous. In order to make a duck express joy, you have to provide it with a water source; if you’re going to animate a duck doing something it’s probably going to be weird (you can stick a cigarette in a beak, but not in a cool way). Nobody touches the loon. Ducks and duck gifs possess glorious autonomy. Here are my opinions on gifs through the most outstanding ducks and the unholy shit people have tried to do to them.
Geese also count.
Invented in 1987, gifs brought color and animation to online imagery intended for exchange between computers. (The first is believed to be a plane in flight.) The graphics interchange format filetype was not necessarily animated; it was just an available feature.
I can’t stop thinking about this woodduck.gif from the 1992 Gifs Galore CD-ROM, an index of still gif images—reference courtesy of, again, Popular Mechanics–which observes that gifs like this one existed “just because it was possible.”
Woodduck.gif didn’t need to move; the fact that you could view images on computers was cool enough. (And savvy CD-ROM consumers could discover their buried treasure: semi-nudes in a gallery of landscape files—subtle.) It utilized the maximum 256-color gif palette. The duck calls back to Audubon prints and wooden tabletop adornment favored by sophisticated grandparents. It’s 418 pixels wide 72dpi and 10 kilobytes, so if Netscape Navigator 2.0 had existed in ‘92, it would have added a hypothetical 4.5 seconds to your page load, which, when you think about it, is an insufferably long time by today’s standards, but surely worth the wait. It exists.
Even a shitty, shitty 1998 CD-ROM trove of 22,000 gifs for “for web designers, desktop publishers, and anyone who wants to add excitement to electronic documents” full of pinky-nail-sized animated gifs includes a bit of artful abstraction—geese in flight, rendered in no more than maybe 60 pixels. That’s all you need.
The Internet Archive’s boundless inventory of Geocities gifs display the range of digital workmanship from the late nineties and early aughts (Internet Archive’s software curator Jason Scott pulled dancing duck, arguably Geocities’ favorite duck). A good duck glides back and forth on the invisible waters of transparent backgrounds. If a duck lays an egg, that egg better go back in the duck or disappear from the frame.
Good GIF duck displays the wizardry of spacial illusion. Bask in the unmitigated beauty, the grace with which the good duck appears and vanishes into the white vacuum of your website. (Note: this duck only loops so many times, which are all it needs to make its point.)
Bad GIF ducks jerk around, and the goose’s golden eggs vanish. No.
...if only they could have reversed the frames...
Ducks were hard to draw because they are already perfect and also because nobody knew how to use computers
Blingee (2006), a tool to spangle your ducks, brought duck gifs to the people—no HTML, no Photoshop, no GIMP. In an ode to Blingee, digital archivist and curator at Rhizome Dragan Espenschied noted that Blingee was popular with Russian grandmothers—which was true at least for the most popular Blingee artist, a Russian grandmother with an affinity for partially-clad goddesses in glittering mists. Blingee was structured as a bare-bones social network for bling, where users posted content to their profiles and perhaps received awards and made friends. Espenschied wrote that the service was Web 1.0 in its design with “modular” pages that pulled from preexisting graphics and made them your own.
Blingee almost flamed out in 2015 but remains today, and it rules. May the birthday candles of Blingee never extinguish.
So they blinged the ducks. I don’t have an opinion on the following duck, other than to observe that the people used the tools that God gave them and put a tiara on a mallard.
In 2008, the New York Times disparaged Tumblr as a “digital mood board,” but that doesn’t give it enough credit for its support of new and exciting ducks. Unknown artists upped the world’s Sketchup, Blender, Photoshop, and Illustrator games; gifs were easier to make and faster to load; tow-haired children kissed ducks; Howard the Duck got memed.
In 2008, longtime gif artist Tom Moody wrote, of the proliferation of gifs by non-net artists and professional CD-ROM distributors: “This mini-cinema can be ‘scaled up’ for galleries and film festivals but it’s equally fun to surrender it to the big pool of home-made creations that [circulate] on the Web. It’s gratifying to find GIFs you made yourself circulating on the pages of strangers months or years later.”
As the Museum of Moving Image recalls in a cultural history of GIFs, Tumblr started supporting gifs of modest size in 2007. Their initial limitation behooved artists to “down-res GIFs that were larger than 500 pixels and to either decrease the number of frames in the animation or decrease the GIF’s color palette to stay within the 1MB file size limitation.”
But that’s a hell of a lot bigger than gif sizes of yore; woodduck.gif was only 10KB. Perfect duck from Geocities was only 4KB. By 2016, Looopism’s Tumblr gave us the absolute 1.3 MB beauty below.
“Your mind is a field, and a thought is a seed. Plant a thought, and it will grow into a meadow,” a yoga instructor once told my class. I think of this often when looking at reaction gifs, which have ravaged the meadow of my mindscape, thanks in no small part to Gfycat and Giphy. (In the past, former Gizmodo staffer Ashley Feinberg took a hard stance on this in 2016.) Services like Gfycat have induced the masses upload YouTube links and transform brief clips into gifs, on top of which one can add text; they jolt and restart like idiots and say BIG THINGS in BIG LETTERS so you can get the POINT in case you MISSED the EMOTIONS which, camera angle looking down, rob ducks of their grace and majesty. They are the internet’s morons.
But in general, video gifs bring us joy, too.
Artist Lorna Mills has built a decades-spanning dazzling menagerie from such gifs (no text), of animals humping, dancing, nibbling, boogying. (Also porn stars, doing the same.) There is no gif with which Mills is unfamiliar. These ducks come from here.
Artists have lived in an alternate gif universe for decades on surf clubs and really cool sites like Computers Club and dump.fm (RIP). “As artists began communicating via bulletin board systems as early as the 1980s, it is plausible to assume that the adoption of the GIF as a vehicle for creative communication came as early as the file type itself, circa June 1987,” the Museum of Moving Image writes in an extensive GIF history. The artist-formed digital museum Rhizome.org started commissioning GIFs as early as 1998, by pioneering net artists Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied–who have tracked down their origins, all the way to stripping out the plain text, reading authors’ notes, and recording their biographies.
All of this matters because artists’ true love of the unadulterated medium is what inspired Alec Mackenzie, aka Bad Blueprints, to make the following duck:
“I’d always associated gifs with the old GeoCities websites that would often be crammed from top to bottom with flaming skulls, glittering hearts, and those flashing ‘under construction’ signs,” Mackenzie told Gizmodo. “I attempted to take some of the look and feel of those into my own gifs by playing around with 3D models in Sketchup, screengrabbing them and then making animations using the image editor GIMP. It was a very rudimentary way of working, more like stop-motion than 3D animation, but it suited the rough irreverent style I was after, and there was no rendering required.”
Then there are film gifs that shift scenes oh-so-slightly with black magic; the spectacular loops which enable a duck to bob on shimmering waters, as ducks should; the incorporation of a duck to add a little weirdness to your life.
Every few years, someone predicts the end of gifs. Artists are pivoting to looping Instagram videos because Instagram doesn’t support the file format. You can’t pull a gif off Facebook in the same way that you can from Google images, save them to your desktop, and drop them into a document where they will magically animate. On gifs’ inevitable transition to video wrappers that act as gifs, Eric Limer writes in Popular Mechanics:
“The web of 2016 is not the web of 2006. It’s chock full of these walled gardens, these ‘platforms.’ And while each might still understand what a GIF is, these generally don’t ‘support’ GIFs so much as they suck them in and never let them escape. Think about it this way: If GIFs are like framed pictures you can take down and move to your new house, these GIF-like videos are murals painted right onto the wall. The same general form, but with a big chunk of missing function. GIFs are for sharing, and you can’t take a Twitter GIF with you.”
The Museum of Moving Image describes a litany of preservation problems that are too extensive to get into here, but think of the .wmf file format, a Windows-based file format that adorned Powerpoints and now won’t open on Mac.
The ducks have gotten bigger and weirder and more detailed. As the cats brandished lightsabers and were stacked into shoe organizers for our entertainment, ducks carried out their dignified migration. The humans gave ducks the heavens, the rivers, and water slides. They gave the cats the couch cushions and the toilet paper.
Gifs may die. Should that happen, I will be sad to lose precisely one: Rhizome’s gif edition of a 1952 computer-generated artwork by Christopher Strachey from his Love Letter series. It predates gifs by over thirty years but is preserved as one, originally generated from an algorithm created on the first mass-market computer which, for public purposes, is extinct.
And fine, yes, gifs are great too.