4Chan, the mysterious, mischief-making message board that has launched many of the Web’s biggest trends, pranks and movements, made a small — but potentially prophetic! — policy change on Monday. From now on, a file format called “WebM” will be allowed on the site’s infamous image boards. Most people traditionally think of WebM as a video format. But by endorsing it for the image boards, 4chan has essentially christened WebM as a type of looping image. More importantly, 4chan has blessed WebM as an alternative … to the GIF.
This isn’t the first would-be GIF-killer. Another format, called the GFY (short for GIF Format Yoker) proposed an alternative that would be smaller and more compatible with different devices and browsers. When Twitter launched Vine in 2013, Buzzfeed’s Matt Buchanan named it “the future of the animated GIF,” noting that “the GIF feels, to many, like an exhausted medium.”
But why? After all, the endlessly flexible, evolvable GIF is like the currency of the social Web. But one of the GIF’s most charming quirks — it’s lo-fi, retro Web origins — is also its downfall. The files are big, and the graphic quality is often really, really bad. Plus, GIFs aren’t supported everywhere — you still can’t post them to Facebook, for instance.
Vines, on the other hand, can go anywhere tweets can. And while WebMs aren’t as widely supported, they do promise “superior image quality, support for more than 256 colors, and reduced file size” vis-a-vis the GIF. Despite these much-touted benefits, however, a scroll through any blog or Twitter feed turns up far more GIFs than Vines — and certainly more GIFs than GFYs. Don’t even start with animated PNGs, an image format invented to replace the GIF … in the mid-90s.
That doesn’t bode well for the WebM, though we can still hope. After all, its adoption would — if nothing else! — conclusively end the GIF vs. JIF debate. Not that WebM is super-pronounceable either. Web-ems? Web-ums? Hm.