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GIFs: Worth a Thousand Words?

By Hanna Valerie Wolf

2015 marked the definite breakthrough of the decades-old Graphics Interchange Format (GIF), moving images often accompanied by an original caption. Although mainly used for entertainment purposes on social media, GIFs also present a valuable tool for today’s digital journalism.

The first time I came across the concept of GIFs was in 1997, when the first Harry Potter novel was published. In this novel, one difference between muggles (i.e. the non-magic folk) and wizards were their photos. Unlike the static photos of the non-magic folk, wizards’ photos were moving images. “GIFs”, I would call them today.

Sheldon gif 'Muggles'
Source: giphy.com

Since 1997, us muggles have come impressively close to what was magic back then in the Harry Potter world. We might not be able to leave the picture whenever we please just yet, as Harry Potter’s wizards were. But soon, our Facebook profile pictures no longer need to be static: Endlessly looping clips will replace ordinary pictures and add a whole new level of dynamics to our profiles.

Only in May 2015, Facebook finally enabled the posting of GIFs. Prior concerns that they would make the Timeline confusing and unappealing to users have proven false: more and more users post GIFs to express their mood. By that time, Tumblr and BuzzFeed had already fully immersed in the GIF market, making them forerunners for other new media channels. The short clips have meanwhile become so popular that the verb “to gif” has been added to common dictionaries.

But what makes GIFs more than yet another social media trend? Wherein lies their potential for today’s journalism?

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Source: giphy.com

Daily News in GIFs

While GIFs are still mainly used for entertainment purposes on social media, several companies have realised their greater potential. “The GIF has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications including research and journalism”, says Katherine Martin, the head of the United States dictionaries program at Oxford University Press, according to the New York Times.

Thus, it is not surprising that a number of websites, blogs and apps have made it their mission to present daily news to their customers in GIFs. On 4newswall, GIFs with prominent captions summarize key news stories creating a collage of moving images. These days, an often ‘giffed’ candidate is Donald Trump, which underlines a GIF’s power to mock a person or event in a way a static picture could not:

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Source: 4newswall.com

Similarly, the tumblr blog GIF News posts GIFs which summarise selected news stories of the day in a condensed manner. Focusing mostly on entertaining facts, the blog takes a more artsy approach to GIFs. Instead of creating GIFs from real-life photo and video footage, animations are used. This week, for instance the “For Real” beauty trend sweeping Asia, which includes looking hungover and having bad teeth, was captured like this:

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Source: gifnews.tumblr.com

And, of course, apps have jumped onto the GIF bandwagon, too: NewsGIF is one of them. Here, the app provides headlines, while the users vote for the GIF that best summarizes each story. What the three concepts share besides providing (soft) news, is the assumption that a GIF can indeed be worth a thousand words. With only a caption and a well-chosen clip, the audience gets a grasp of what happened – superficial, but fascinating.

But what makes these endlessly looping videos so intriguing?

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Source: giphy.com

Why are GIFs so Successful?

“The GIF occupies very fertile ground between the still and the moving image”, Carl Goodman, director of the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens explains in an interview with the New York Times. Meaning: We are too busy (lazy?) to watch a whole video on Youtube, where we might even suffer an unbearable 20 seconds of ads before the actual clip. Instead, we prefer the looped, no-sound alternatives that still add the aspect of motion to the experience. In our fast-pace time, even the act of clicking on a link and waiting for the tab to open costs precious time.

Another aspect that contributes to the GIF’s success is that everybody can create his or her own – it’s easy and fun. Several tools to do so are available, from Tumblr’s GIF maker to giphy.com, a website where people can create and browse GIFs. In many ways, the trend toward GIFs is a continuation of the so-called ‘memes’ trend, where funny captions are added to expressive pictures and which still enjoy great popularity in the comments sections on Facebook and Twitter.

…But Most of All: GIFs are #SoRelatable

Besides the time-saving aspect and the ease with which we can create them, it is really one key factor that drives the success of GIFs: their relatability. Popular GIFs (just like memes) are so popular because a large number of people identify with the depicted situation or expression. This identification creates a sense of community among the users. “I am not the only one craving pizza in the middle of the night”: it’s a comforting thought that other people share your frustrations and moments of joy. In addition, the fact that many GIFs build on scenes from TV shows or films contributes to their spread, as many people recall the scene or actor.

And believe me, meanwhile there is a GIF for every single feeling you’ve ever felt.

1. Whether you’re confident…

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Source: giphy.com

2. …or you can’t believe what you’re seeing:

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Source: giphy.com

3. When you’ve been studying for too long…

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Source: giphy.com

4. …or you really need to make your point clear:

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Source: giphy.com

5. When you’re frustrated with people…

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Source: giphy.com

6. …and when you finally succeed:

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Source: giphy.com

Entertainment over Issues

In many ways, the GIF trend is symbolic of the millenial generation, or what the generation is often accused of: it emphasises entertainment over real involvement with an issue. While this is not necessarily a problem in the context of social media posts, it is problematic from a journalistic point of view.

While GIFs can provide a valuable tool to attract a larger, particularly a younger, audience, they also present a threat to journalistic quality. Increasingly, people look for short, condensed summaries of news stories, rather than in-depth analyses. This becomes apparent not only in the trend toward news in GIFs, but also in other innovations, like The Economist’s recently launched ‘Espresso’ app. “[Espresso] is designed to be ‘finishable’—gathering up what you need to know into a compact package, with no need to click on links to get the full picture”, explains The Economist on its website.

A ‘compact package’: Even quality papers like The Economist seem to go with the trend toward providing one main message. While the trend is successful and adapted to our busy lives, there is a danger that we no longer look out for alternative perspectives. A GIF leaves no room for discussion of its caption.

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Source: giphy.com

Last but not least, one important question remains: How do you pronounce GIF? Is it ‘gif’ or ‘jif’?

Even though both versions are accepted, Steve Wilhite, who invented the format in the late 1980s, insists on an initial soft g, making ‘jif’ the correct pronunciation.