Animated GIFs have become so huge. They’re everywhere. But why? On the surface, they’re pretty silly—a few frames of video, endlessly looping in time. There are GIFs of Star Trek‘s Picard facepalming, of Dwight from The Office dancing, of one penguin shoving another into the water. There’s Tom Cruise laughing, sports-play flameouts, tons of porn.
This is the sort of one-note joke that—like rickrolling or ermahgerd pics—normally fades after a few revolutions of the international meme cycle. But animated GIFs aren’t dying. They’re metastasizing: People festoon their Tumblrs with them, pass them around in email, and use them as Twitter avatars or signatures on discussion boards. Oxford Dictionaries even chose GIF as its USA Word of the Year for 2012. This is all the weirder considering that GIFs date back to the prebroadband late ’80s. As a medium, they’re quite old.
Ah, but it’s this ancient vintage that helps explain their true appeal. To really understand the value of animated GIFs, you have to go back even farther—to 1879 and Eadweard Muybridge’s “zoopraxiscope.”
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Every so often, a person comes along who combines an insatiable pop culture appetite and a totally baseless sense of his own importance. Not only has that happened, but for some reason Wired saw fit to give him his own weekly podcast. Allow us to introduce The Monitor, a new video series in which senior editor Peter Rubin sits in front of a giant fake bookshelf and talks about his favorite releases of the week.