Whether or not you think 2012 was the Year of the GIF, the fact stands pretty certain: the Graphic Interchange Format is all around us. One place where this is readily apparent is Wikipedia, where GIFs are used to illustrate everything from mathematical principles to how to correctly write a Japanese character. And of course, because the internet has only exacerbated our human tendency to collect and list and display things, someone has made a website that cycles through all of the GIFs on Wikipedia.
Wikigifs, as the site is called, is admittedly mesmerizing. Because the GIFs are presented alone, with their titles (which are often abbreviations or in other languages) but without the articles or topics they accompany, clicking through pretty much leads you from one obscurity to the next (with the occasional side trip into hilarity or uselessness). What does this animated image of two perpendicular cylinders, alternately shrinking and expanding, illustrate? Or these three colored strands that intertwine — I thought they might be RNA or some kind of scientific animation, but no, they actually belong to “Sinnets,” a subcategory of knots.
In that sense, Wikigifs, much like its source, Wikipedia, is a wonderful reminder of how much you just don’t know and, by extension, how much there is to learn. It makes information exciting. There are, of course, plenty of awful or awfully boring GIFs — lots of animated flags, for instance. There are also inspiring flashes of creativity, examples of people using the format to go beyond basic demonstration, as with the GIF above that belongs to “Calculators,” even though that object itself is static and the animation takes place alongside it.
But I have to say, even though it’s fun to click through and follow the GIFs to their sources, in some ways it’s more interesting to just stay on the site and cycle through the animations one by one. Without their context, they become little puzzles, and the experience feels curiously retro, like picking up an old illustrated encyclopedia and marveling at the ways humans attempt to explain and share knowledge.