Few things have aged better than the GIF.
Created by Compuserve in 1987 as a way to share compressed motion images, the graphics interchange format turns 26 on Saturday. It’s coming off a banner year that found the medium being at once elevated to the realm of high art and reduced to a pidgin language on Tumblr through reaction GIFs.
Last year, we pulled out all the stops to celebrate the GIF’s 25th anniversary, asking acclaimed artists to create something unique for the occasion. This time around, we’re turning the tables and sharing with you some of our all-time favorite GIFs.
What we found is that it doesn’t matter how you pronounce “GIF.” These endlessly looping images succeed where words fail, communicating the essence of an idea, moment, or emotion.
And if you’re looking to get in on the action, revisit our step-by-step guide to GIFing everything you see.
Fernando Alfonso III
Growing up in a home with two parents who worked at IBM meant there was no shortage of computers. When my father got tired of his old Aptiva, he handed it over to me. I would spend hours playing pixelated video games and figuring out what MS-DOS prompts it took to crash the machine. The first GIF I remember discovering on the Internet was the dancing baby. Something about seeing that 3-D baby boogie down was hilarious. I'll never forget dragging my father into my stuffy room plastered in car posters, asking him how I could download the GIF onto a floppy disc to share with my friends. A lot has changed since then. The Internet is much larger now. More complicated. But it always brings a smile to my face to see that the dancing baby had never aged.
Say what you like about Emilia Clarke’s acting: This is one of the most badass scenes in Game of Thrones’ long history of totally badass scenes. After freeing an army of slave assassins, Daenerys Targaryen immediately throws away the whip that controls them, secure in the knowledge that they’ll follow her anywhere. One of the coolest mic-drops I’ve ever seen.
I haven't seen enough words spilled on why a GIF works so well for sports highlights, though SB Nation has built a library of them. When someone completes a remarkable feat that you know you have to see again. Well, what's better than an infinite loop of the exact seconds in question?
I chose my GIF in small in part to highlight that point. But mostly it's because I'm a lifelong Marshall football fan, a program small enough that this insane catch, from then-freshman QB Rakeem Cato to recently drafted New England Patriot Aaron Dobson, went largely unseen.
I'd traveled home to Huntington, W.Va., for Thanksgiving in 2011, and I saw this game in person the next day. Despite sitting on the 20-yard line, just a dozen rows back, I had no way to process how Dobson stuck his right arm out at such a precise moment, how he was able to grab a plummeting football with one hand at such an awkward angle. Even when I saw the replay on the scoreboard, it seemed like an otherworldly movement. So whoever GIF'd this, thanks. I needed to process what I saw in real life by seeing this a few hundred more times.
Aziz Ansari’s quick smile as Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation perfectly conveys surprise and delight. I use it whenever I want to show someone I care.
I have no idea what this GIF is even supposed to convey, but it does end on the most appropriate of acronyms. The image dates back years; I used it as my MySpace profile picture for the longest time.
A chubby kid in full NBA performance gear—Zach Randolph jersey, Allen Iverson-style arm sleeve—waves his arm and screams in the stands of a 2012 Clippers-Grizzlies game. It’s pure, unadulterated joy. And when this footage aired, sports fans still reeling from Amar’e Stoudemire’s self-inflicted hand injury and Junior Seau’s suicide remembered why they were sports fans to begin with. You could watch this GIF 500 times. This guy did.
Having been compared to Ron Swanson once or twice (I still haven’t figured out if that’s good or bad), I feel as if I can connect to this GIF of Parks and Recreation’s star dancing drunk on Snake Juice. Haven’t we all had a Friday night where we thought we were the best dancer in the club?
It’s been said that you never forget your first Doctor, and maybe that's why I love this GIF. The Ninth Doctor may not be my favorite, but he did make me a Doctor Who fan—and look at his moves! This is perfect for any occasion, to express happiness, excitement, and general awesomeness. It can be described in the Doctor’s own words, as fantastic!
This GIF of an impossibly studly gentleman surfing through the air on a full-grown crocodile has mystified Internet users since at least 2008. Who is this gaudily dressed character, and how did he come to sky-surf crocodiles for kicks? More importantly, is that Bruce Jenner?
Nay, dear reader, it is not.
The GIF actually originated from a 1997 episode of the British sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf. In the relevant scene, a super-cool alternate-universe version of one of the main characters actually rides the croc out of a Nazi plane, landing on some bad guys' heads in the process. Oh, and his name is Ace Rimmer. (Seriously. You have to watch this show.)
Although it was bizarre enough to become popular on its own merits, the Rimmer GIF didn't reach its full potential until someone set it to the famous "Interior Crocodile Alligator," a freestyle by rapper Chip da Ripper. The lyrics, for those not familiar, go something like this:
Interior crocodile alligator
I drive a Chevrolet movie theater
So loop da Ripper, loop this GIF, and (obligatory inside joke for Red Dwarf fans) smoke me a kipper, I'll be back for breakfast.
Internet hero Ron Swanson deserves to be on any GIF list. Nick Offerman perfects the pratfall here, slipping on grass while in a rush to divulge information to his Parks and Recreation coworkers. That the GIF doesn't limit itself to just the slide makes it better: The tension-filled moments beforehand literally set Swanson up for a fall.
I love it when people I know start getting into something I've already read or seen because I get a major kick out of watching their reactions to major events in real time, like watching a huge twist on Game of Thrones from a reader's perspective. There's plenty of popcorn GIFs floating around Tumblr, but Stephen Colbert's smugness gets my point across perfectly.
I had three sisters growing up. Part of my brain knows there’s nothing funny about this clip, but I can’t hear it over the rest of my brain shouting “BOYS RULE!”
Infinitely applicable wherever a heated argument unfolds online. There’s a lot to love here, but the literalization of bro-speak and the 8-bit execution are what keep me coming back for more. At this point it actually makes me crave spicy food.
I realize there’s no dignity in sharing cat GIFs. And yet, as this cat explores a strange steam-spouting piece of human machinery, it maintains all composure, fighting off its oafish friend and persisting with its inquiry. This cat is nothing if not dignified. I have great respect for this cat.
Being exposed to it on a daily basis means that there’s very little about Internet culture that genuinely impresses me. Once in awhile, however, I’ll come across something so great and fantastic that it deserves a round of applause. And what better way to give someone or something their do than with Orson Welles, one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, clapping and staring so intensely and with such purpose?
Watch these thrusting, geriatric disco hips thrust for long enough and they will disarm you, own you, command you to do their bidding. Certainly there's a cult that worships this GIF, slavish neckbeards who stumbled across it in dark crevices of the Internet, never to return, minds wiped clean, their memories of friends and family replaced with this one GIF on permanent loop. You're probably not even reading this anymore now because of the hips, those endlessly thrusting hips...
There's nothing—and I mean nothing—that'll cheer me up more than a solid slow-motion corgi flop, and while the video compilations are great, the GIF lets me watch one unending loop of stumpy-dog bellyflops. The tiny legs! The grand ambition! The puffy life vest! Truly, the corgi flop has it all.
Have you ever seen happiness? No you have not, not until you’ve seen Mama June’s face. This GIF of the perfect Southern belle and mother of the Goddess (a.k.a Honey Boo Boo) tubing on mac and cheese gives me the feeling of visiting my favorite Chinese buffet place. So much joy and regret. Just please don’t ask to see the forklift foot.
This GIF perfectly combines three things I unabashedly love: the New York Knicks, the golden era of professional wrestling, and remix culture. Steve Novak will never be a dominant performer. He’s a specialist, a contract killer from behind the three, and his trademark gesture, a homage to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, is the epitome of subtle swag.
The GET OUT frog is the perfect response for a statement that doesn't really deserve a response. The frog itself was a prop in an adult photo shoot, made popular by the SomethingAwful goons and quickly adopted by other forum users. Consider this; in a flame war, “GTFO” looks downright pathetic compared to an animated GIF of this frog telling you off.
Good lord did I hate the Harlem Shake. It was one of those memes that wasn't even funny the first time I saw it. That's why I love this brief, unexpected take on it. (Also, rarely is a GIF creepy enough to make it hard to fall asleep, so kudos the guys behind this one.)
Whenever I feel my life is too chaotic, I look at this photo of Tyra Banks, and center myself.
It can’t be so bad that the spinning I regret nothing chicken won’t make you feel better. Carpe diem.
My favorite GIFs let your relive a great movie moment, and Dr. Strangelove is one of my favorite movies.
We’ve all had days like this. Sometimes it seems like the world is completely against you—but then you take a moment and realize that you’re just an idiot.
I went to college in New England. All my friends were Celtics fans.
This wasn't the worst thing ever. My college years spanned 2003-2007, and in those years, the Celtics, long revered as the most storied franchise in the history of professional basketball and the second most accomplished franchise in all of American sports, won a paltry 138 games, only 34.5 a season. But it got to be a nuisance just a few weeks after my class's graduation, when the Celtics traded three players for record-breaking sharpshooter Ray Allen and then turned around a few weeks later to pull the same move for the power forward Kevin Garnett.
Within weeks, a sorry franchise had been transformed into perennial contenders, and my crew of Celtics supporters went from a legion of lovable losers to frontrunners who wouldn't shut up about the influx of their Big Three. I hated it. I hated every part about it. Flummoxed, I decided to revolt against the system.
One day that summer, I came forth in an email thread to announce that I'd taken up affinity for the Los Angeles Lakers—the second most accomplished franchise in professional basketball and Public Enemy No. 1 for each and every supporter of the vaunted Boston Celtics. The two teams hated each other—they'd hated each other for years. And I, a team-less kid from Baltimore, would go the way of the hated.
Being a Lakers fan was awesome. In the four years following my announcement, historically talented Kobe Bryant took the team to three different NBA Finals, losing once to the Celtics (I know) and winning their own chips twice. I took bragging rights as soon as I could claim them, shouting "Let's Go Lakers" when my friends and I would get together and taking every opportunity I could to remind them of the great players—Mikan, Wilt, West, Kareem, Worthy, Magic, Van Exel (sure), Shaq, Kobe—to come through the organization. My organization, I'd tell them. My squad. The Lakers. The Lakeshow. 16 championships. I'd been there for all *ahem* of them.
Last year's offseason was fantastic. In a matter of weeks, the team signed point guard Steve Nash and shot-blocking extraordinary Dwight Howard, giving Kobe, then 33, one of the most formidable front lines in history.
Then, a few days into the season, two Lakers fans showed up on camera taking their sunglasses off after a big dunk. The clip got turned into a GIF. The GIF went viral, and the Laker Bros became my tagline. Every time I wanted to drive a point home, I'd add the GIF to an email, eternally reminding my Celtics friends that there's no bigger, brasher, and better squad on Earth than this Lakers squad from Los Angeles.
The Lakers went on to have one of the most disappointing seasons on record, winning only 45 games and getting swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs' first round. I stayed quiet for a few days, but by the third round, they were back: the Laker Bros, breaking into emails and, for a fleeting moment, at least, reminding everyone who sees them just how fun it can be to root for the Lakers.
Illustration by Jason Reed