The Rise of the Animated GIF

How GIFs are taking over social media & influencing online photojournalism

Photo © Getty Images

Animated images – otherwise known as GIFs – have been around for 25 years, and in 2015, the GIF trend has never been stronger. Back in the mid to late 90s, at the dawn of the Internet age, GIFs were normally characterized by tacky little clipart images that moved skittishly, often scattered across sites built on Geocities or Angelfire.

Today, GIFs are playing an increasingly important role in breaking news on the web, telling stories through photojournalism and giving us new ways to express our emotions when we can’t do it in person.

There’s no doubt about it – GIFs and social media have indeed become BFFs.

Why Did the Web Choose the Animated GIF?

So, how exactly did the GIF become such a perfect image format to pass around the Internet anyway? This NY Times article says that people in their 20s likely experience some sense of nostalgia for the awkward clipart GIF images many of us were exposed to in the 90s when we started exploring the Internet for the first time.

As a 20-something, I can safely say it’s not exactly the 90s clipart GIF nostalgia that’s driving all this animated image sharing. Instead, I’d say that it’s the cross between image and video that makes the GIF so incredibly appealing.

Regular photos in JPG or PNG format already do fine on social media, because we’re quickly moved by visual content, but the GIF format adds something much more special – a mini video, with no sound, that can be watched from start to finish in as little as one or two seconds in a simple, auto-looping fashion.

Videos on YouTube or Vimeo take  some time to watch – a couple minutes at the very least. They also produce sound. GIFs offer a much more convenient, faster and totally silent way to express something. It’s the perfect combination between image and video that really captures our attention.

Tumblr: Ruler of Social GIF Sharing

Tumblr – the popular microblogging (or “tumble blog”) social network largely dominated by teens – is one of the biggest viral drivers of GIF sharing.

On the Explore page, “GIF” is always among the top tags on Tumblr, meaning that people are sharing lots of them.

Kids have figured out ways of creating GIFs out of their favorite TV shows, movies, YouTube videos, music videos, sports events, award shows and everything else. And they know how to do it fast. Once something like that gets posted, followers see it on their Tumblr dashboards and are often eager to reblog it, pushing the endless viral spread across all users who see keep passing it around.

Like Twitter, Tumblr has become an important social networking tool for breaking news and current events, so its GIF integration has made it a place where people can quickly find and share animated images of what’s happening as it’s happening.

Photos are great, but GIFs bring something different to the content mix. They tell stories better, and Tumblr has become the primary place to share them.

BuzzFeed: Ruler of GIF-inspired Photojournalism

Take a look at BuzzFeed and its use of GIFs. The team over there has completely mastered the art of viral sharing, largely through list posts of images and GIFs.

This post, called Life In Your Early Twenties vs. Life In Your Late Twenties racked up almost two million page views and over 173K Facebook likes just three days after it was posted.

If you take a look through it, you’ll notice that almost every image is actually an animated GIF.

Two million views in just a couple of days? Now that’s power. Of course, it helps that most 20-somethings can relate to almost every single GIF in that post, but the real beauty lies in the GIF’s short and sweet storytelling magic. GIFs can tell stories in a way that most still images just can’t.

GIFs and Social Media

Tumblr is regarded by many as the big kahuna of GIF sharing, but other social networks and image sharing platforms, like Imgur, have already jumped onboard. Google has actually launched a separate GIF filter in its image search for people who want to find specific animated images related to certain keywords.

Apps like Cinemagram owe their success to the GIF trend. Not only do they give users an easy way to create their own GIFs, but they’ve also created successful social networks built entirely around the GIF trend that people actually want to use.

With access to so many apps like Cinemagram, GifBoom and others, almost anyone can create a GIF in as little as a few seconds.

What Does the Future Look Like for the Animated GIF?

The GIF isn’t going anywhere. If anything, people will figure out ways to use them even more.

The GIF trend will most likely call for more social networks to offer GIF support. Twitter, for example, has made it possible for a variety of content types to be embedded directly in tweets through Twitter Cards, but so far, Twitter does not yet support the GIF format.

Websites and blogs are now looking at how the GIF can enrich the visitor experience and encourage them to share their content. Many are taking inspiration from BuzzFeed and sites from the Gawker network, which are already using GIF imagery to drive more traffic and create more interest.

Some say that GIFs are the future of photojournalism. Others say they’re just dumb animations that teenagers like to make instead of doing their homework.

Whether you like it or not, the animated GIF is here to stay. You don’t exactly need to be on Tumblr or need to be a dedicated BuzzFeed reader to know it.

It seems as if the Internet has fallen in love with the GIF, and I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of it in the future.