The end of a millennial Internet age

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Millennials are seeing their version of the internet slip away and even be dismissed as “cringe.” Kaitlyn Tiffany and I discuss the GIF, the millennial hiatus and how Gen Z has changed the way we communicate online.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


Smug and foolish?

Kate Lindsay: Your recent article, “The GIF is on its deathbed”, really resonated online. What are GIFs and what is their meaning to the internet?

Katlyn Tiffany: GIF was one of the Internet’s first file formats (it stands for “graphic interchange format”) and it really took off in the days of CompuServe, AOL, and then the Netscape browser. The first heyday of GIFs was in the first personal web pages of GeoCities, but people still plastered their MySpace pages with GIFs when I was in middle school, about a decade later. The animated GIF is what has become famous, but technically GIFs don’t have to be animated – it’s just one of the interesting possibilities of a format flexible enough to accept many different extensions.

Kate: You write that Gen Z finds GIFs “cringe”. Because?

Katlyn: Gen Z finds specifically reaction GIFs cringe — they claim it’s because reaction GIFs are associated with Millennials, but I don’t really believe in intergenerational warfare. I think the problem is more that most good reaction GIFs have been abused because they have become too accessible. Whether you’re looking to convey a specific emotion in a tweet or text or Slack message, the GIF search feature or Giphy integration that’s part of all of these apps will now bring up the same handful of super-popular GIFs still and again. (The Slack ones are just the worst, because they loop over and over in the window until the conversation goes on long enough to nudge them up and down.) You just don’t see much creativity, and it comes off as very lazy.

Before all those search functions, even five years ago, people were pretty busy picking interesting moments from different things and appropriating them in funny or clever contexts. Now that we’ve lost that, I think using a GIF might seem smug and silly. (I’ve written about this before, specifically in reference to the “How are you, my boys?” GIFswhich is almost physically repulsive to me.)

Kate: I recently wrote about “the millennial break”, which, like the decline of GIFs, is a sign that the millennial era of social media, defined by Facebook and Instagram, is ending. Do you see other omens of this?

Katlyn: The strangest thing about Facebook, to me, is that Millennials are really the only generation that has made it central to their adolescence or college experience. My younger sister has never made an account as far as I know. Even though she is very into Instagram and is better at “photo junk” than anyone my age. If there’s one really notable difference between the two generations for me, I’d argue that Gen Z has a more reflective and seemingly natural relationship with social media that’s actually defined much less by anxiety about her role in their lives. . Not to say that they don’t have the same incentives to perform or experience nightmarish results from existing online as their entire social circle, but more that it seems like a natural part of growing up for them. Why why shouldn’t it?

My sisters got very angry with me when I proposed it to them join BeReal [an app for sharing personal photos that brands itself as a more transparent alternative to Instagram]. I think That the idea was cringe for them: that someone would actually feel so freaked out by the facade of Instagram that they’d need a separate app to help them escape it.

Kate: How is the new era of social media? Is there a Gen Z equivalent to GIFs?

Katlyn: To generalize, I think Gen Z is just more video-first! On Twitter especially, I see them reacting to things with super short video clips which, after all, are effectively GIFs with audio. I’m guessing the image quality tends to be better and they don’t have those awkward watermarks that appear when you create a GIF using a free GIF maker, so that makes them slightly less “creepy”. But otherwise it’s basically the same thing, only more fun. I think because of [the short-form video apps] Vine and then TikTok, people who spend a lot of time on social media have gotten really good at comedic timing.

Kate: Popular platforms like Twitter and Tumblr have started converting and compressing GIFs to MP4 files because they are smaller, which GIF artists dislike for many reasons. Think the total extinction of GIFs is imminent?

Katlyn: This is why I thought the story of GIFs would be fun to write: there’s all this talk about whether GIFs will go out of fashion because they’re embarrassing or not trendy. But people seemed to refer to “GIF” as the general concept of a short, recurring animation, not as a file format. The latter is what is really threatened because in reality is obsolete in a physical, technical, tangible sense. In the story I talked to an artist who will continue to use them forever because of some peculiarities of the GIF, so I don’t think he will die completely. But I can imagine that the GIF, in a few years, will be something of a tool for diehard digital artists, and for reasons only enthusiasts can understand. You know, like Quentin Tarantino buying all that Kodak film.

Related:


Today’s news
  1. The Federal Reserve plans to hike interest rates again next month amid concerns about persistent inflation.
  2. 30% of Ukrainian power plants have been destroyed last week, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky. At least three Ukrainian cities have experienced power outages following Russian attacks on infrastructure.
  3. Xi Jinping is planned be confirmed for an unprecedented third term as president of China at this week’s National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing.

Dispatch

Evening reading
An illustration showing the outline of a person walking, with various body parts "tracked" from Amazon devices
(Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic)

The Rise of “Luxury Surveillance”

By Chris Gillard

Imagine, for a moment, the near future that Amazon dreams of.

Every morning, you are gently awakened by the Amazon Halo Rise. From its perch on your nightstand, the round device spent the night tracking your body movements, the light in your room, and the space’s temperature and humidity. At the optimal point in your sleep cycle, as calculated by a proprietary algorithm, the device’s light gradually brightens to mimic the warm, natural hue of dawn. Your Amazon Echo, plugged in somewhere nearby, automatically starts playing your favorite music as part of your wake-up routine. Ask the device about the time of day; tells you to expect rain. It then notifies you that your next “Subscribe and Save” shipment of Amazon Elements Super Omega-3 softgels is ready for delivery. As you make your way to the bathroom, a notification pops up on your phone from Amazon’s Neighbors app, which is populated with video footage from Amazon Ring cameras in the area: Someone has knocked over trash cans, leaving the community’s backyards a total mess. (Maybe they’re just raccoons.)

Read the full article.

More from The Atlantic


Cultural break
Images of former NXIVM members India Oxenberg and Sarah Edmondson
Former NXIVM members India Oxenberg (left) and Sarah Edmondson in The oath (Starz/HBO)

Laws. Two new dance books that show how movement helps us see the rhythms we all share.

Wading. Season 2 of The oathan HBO documentary series about the NXIVM organization that raises questions about how best to tell the story of a cult.

Listens. The last episode of our podcast How to build a happy lifeon why it’s so hard to find love on dating apps.

Play our daily crossword puzzle.


PS

Giphy is in the news today, as UK regulators they ordered Meta to sell the GIF platform, which it bought in 2020. But I’m more interested in what Giphy determined to be the most popular GIF of 2021: a clip from Season 5 of The office, which aired in 2008 and 2009, in which the camera zooms in on a bored and unimpressed Stanley (Leslie David Baker) crossing his arms. It’s the perfect GIF — or, according to Kaitlyn, about Slack narrowing the GIF pool, just the most obvious GIF to text your coworker when your boss says something you don’t like. GIFs may go out of style, but some things, like The office and the desire to express our seemingly never aged boredom.

—Kate

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.