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As Our Feeds Have Grown, So Have the GIFs We Communicate With

As Our Feeds Have Grown, So Have the GIFs We Communicate With

When Jason Walter first created the r/HighQualityGifs subreddit in September 2013, he did so simply as a way to aggregate the GIFs he made in his spare time. GIFs hadn’t yet become the juggernaut they are today: Facebook had just enabled them the month before, and Twitter wouldn’t do so until that November. Even if you wanted to create one, the technical limitations of the form required a level of Photoshop skill to pull off something worthwhile. Preserving them, Walter thought, was just good sense.

“In the beginning, there was maybe a two-megabyte limit or a ten-megabyte limit [depending on the platform], and you had to create something within those constraints,” Walter says. “It was a skill.” But the challenge was half the fun: his hobby was as much an exercise in economics as it was in software wizardry. Making something that looked good required tinkering with the number of colors the GIF contained, or adjusting the lossy compression—all for a remarkably brief result. “If you could get to 5 seconds on [those size limits] you were lucky,” Walter says.

Five years later, those conditions are all but a thing of the past; those short loops have ceded ground to a more technically and culturally accommodating type of GIF. No longer confined to the inefficiencies of the format and consumption behaviors of the early social web, the graphics interchange format—or at least what it contains—has entered its next stage. Welcome to the era of the longform GIF.

These days the entries on r/HighQualityGifs typically follow a regular format: a clip from a popular movie or TV show, stripped of audio, and recontextualized, either with captions, visual manipulation, or creative editing. Or often, all of the above. Take “Good Night, Sweet Prince,” a tongue-in-cheek remembrance of short-lived White House press secretary Anthony Scaramucci that landed on the subreddit last August.

The minute-long GIF takes a scene from Austin Powers in Goldmember, then superimposes the faces of various White House aides and officials onto the characters. There’s Chief of Staff John Kelly as Number Two, sitting between President Trump and Anthony Scaramucci. “Welcome your new chief!” Trump exclaims via caption, ordering the nameless “officials” behind him to clear out. As Kelly gets up to leave, Trump stops him: “Not you, John,” he says. The camera cuts to others in the group: Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, all of whom Trump orders to sit back down. Scaramucci is clearly the only person meant to leave, and taking the hint, he does so—but not before giving the room the middle finger.

At 62 megabytes, “Goodnight, Sweet Prince”—courtesy of a redditor named “critters,” whose work is so beloved in r/HighQualityGIFs that he’s even inspired homage GIFs—is a monster. It proved to be a monstrous hit as well. Once critters uploaded it, it landed on the front page of Reddit and garnered more than 50,000 upvotes. In music terms, that’s going triple-platinum your first week.

Removing the Speed Bumps

GIFs like “Good Night Sweet Prince” still require artistry—proficiency in Photoshop, After Effects, and other software in the Adobe Creative Suite. But in an era when GIF-delivery platforms like Gfycat, Imgur, and Giphy have all baked editing tools into their interfaces, you don’t necessarily need that kind of technical talent. “Nothing’s holding you back from making a five-minute GIF,” Walter says. “You can do 4K and take up your entire screen if you want. It’s just a lot easier to make one.”

Like Imgur, Gfycat has helped usher in this longform boom not just with its tools, but with a relaxation of past constraints: The platform recently extended its time limit to a full minute. “We had started with 15 seconds, which seemed appropriate for a lot of the content that was going up—messaging and LOL moments,” says Richard Rabbat, CEO of Gfycat. “Then people started telling us, ‘can we have 25 seconds? Can we have 30 seconds?’”

As soon as Gfycat extended the time limit, users started uploading all kinds of longform GIF content. Cooking videos, astronomy jaw-droppers, even household tips. The appetite was there all along, they discovered—it just needed to be unlocked.

But perhaps more than any other audience, the longform format has been widely adopted by game streamers, who export long highlight clips from Twitch or Shadowplay, Nvidia’s screen-capture software. In the past, that process would’ve required multiple complicated steps, requiring users to time their screen captures, and import and export their clips across various softwares. No longer; from game to GIF is a three-click process that even the most sleep-deprived Call of Duty streamer can handle without thought.

Feeding Your Feed

Since the GIF made its comeback around the turn of the decade, people have come to associate it with a certain set of criteria—specifically, that it conveys a feeling or experience as efficidently as possible. This, for instance, deployed in response to a Twitter troll.

Or this, which pairs nicely with a text to a friend about refusing to meet outside when it’s this damn cold outside, Jeff.

And, of course, this—a classic that communicates just about anything.

On a cultural level, these kinds of GIFs proliferated because they proved a fun, quick, and visual way to emote online. But more fundamentally, the GIF’s success is tied to an innovation that has since come to define our relationship to much of the web: the social feed.

“In the past, GIFs were decorative elements related to text. They were design features,” says Jason Eppink, curator at the Museum of Moving Image. “They didn’t exist on their own terms.” Once social feeds were introduced, though, the GIF became, for lack of a better term, content. It “was really the first mainstream instance of GIFs existing on their own,” Eppink adds.

The social feed didn’t just give GIFs a wider audience; it liberated them from their existing, less-fun format. As social media matured, and feeds got fuller, so did competition for attention—and as a short, visual, discrete form of multimedia, the GIF fared well.

So when social media, which had inextricably tied itself into the DNA of the modern GIF, went mobile, the GIF did too. There was just one problem: the format didn’t play nice on your phone.

Pivoting to (Soundless, Looping) Video

All that changed when platforms like Gycat, Imgur, and Giphy launched an effort to “improve the GIF” for a mobile audience. Instead of defining it as a file format, they considered it to be part of a pattern of consumption. A GIF didn’t need to be a .gif—it just had to look like one.

That freed the format up to exist in a more computationally efficient framework: video. All it needed to do was share the same aesthetic criteria of the GIF—mute and ever-looping. “People consume a lot of content on their phone, in many cases, without the audio,” says Rabbat. “So the GIF serves a purpose as [its own] media for that kind of content.”

But in moving the GIF experience to a video format, those platforms narrowed the distinction between how users consume GIFs on mobile and how they consume video on mobile. That has only been reinforced as publishers and media creators employ GIF-like tactics on their videos: Adding captions; embedding graphical text. All to make their content viewable without sound.

As a result, the experience of watching a GIF is not much different than watching a video on Instagram and Facebook—and that conflation has led to an increased tolerance for longform moving images on mobile device.

“This longform thing is really stretching the behaviors and aesthetics of what we understood GIFs to be,” Eppink says. As a GIF purist, he worries that extending the format to accommodate “things that might just be better as minute-long video” ultimately betrays the format’s simplicity.

That may be true, but as evinced by the growing cache of longform GIFs proliferating on Imgur, Gfycat, and Reddit, the internet has an appetite for them. They may not all be as complex as “Good Night, Sweet Prince”—but hey, it’s still early days.

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