How a simple file extension became an emotional expression format
At one level, the Gif, or Graphics Interchange Format, is a simple file suffix, such as .jpg or .doc. Images are grainy and limited to 256 colors. But what started as a compression technique to reduce the size of image files has become a medium for millions of people.
Every second of every day, people use engines like Tenor and Giphy to search for animated Gifs – usually celebrity reactions – that perfectly match their mood. These search engines have become both a barometer of public emotion and a window into a person’s feelings. This kind of information is very valuable these days. Facebook, when it bought Giphy last week, put a price on it: 400 million dollars (1.5 billion dirhams).
The rise of the Gif has been unusual. It was invented by a team at Compuserve – one of the first American Internet service providers – in 1987, two years before the birth of the World Wide Web. Reducing the size of image files was crucial in the days of extremely slow modems, and in the early days of the web they were widely used (some would say grotesquely) to animate otherwise boring text pages. GIFs quickly gained the ability to animate and loop, but their basic format hasn’t changed for decades.
Their function, however, has.
The eye-catching talent of these images made them the perfect ad format; Gif banner ads were used by billions during the dotcom boom. More sophisticated and brilliant animation formats like Flash would eventually make Gifs look a bit old-fashioned, but the advent of social media and websites like Reddit and Tumblr has given them a new lease of life. Images of American actors Orson Welles applauding fervently and Leonardo DiCaprio raising a glass would become part of the web lexicon (describing sarcastic appreciation and ironic celebration, respectively). In a few pop culture moving pictures, Gifs could say things too tedious to describe in words.
“When you think of the whole story of how human beings communicate with each other, it’s face to face,” said Alex Magnin, Giphy’s chief revenue officer. marketing publication Adage. “[What this] It is about the human desire to make your communication richer, more visually expressive, more nuanced.“
Company founder Alex Chung realized in 2013 that people were looking for a Gif, going back to a messaging app, and pasting it. Giphy and its competitors have become repositories for these files, and access has been integrated directly through custom keyboards. As a result, the popularity of Gif has increased. Magnin estimates the number of searches on his company’s platform at more than one billion per day. This research is not about things or facts, but about emotion and affect.
Kate Miltner, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, has long been interested in Gif culture. His 2015 project on a Gif keyboard designed for the TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race made it clear to him how valuable the associated data was. “One of the main purposes of the app was to collect data about users – in particular, the number of conversations in progress, what content is most frequently used and by whom,” she explains.
Giphy will now do this data collection on many platforms. From teenage obsessions with TikTok to corporate communications with Slack, all Gif searches will now return to Facebook. It provides the Silicon Valley giant not only with crucial data, but also a means to serve advertising. Companies like Nestlé, Nissan and KFC pay to promote brand gifs ahead of the rest of the pack. “Take the research data and the behavioral data to help users come up with the GIF that matches their particular emotion, and voila – people are now using your [subtly] branded content to express their own emotions, ”says Miltner. We effectively advertise to each other.
It is therefore not surprising that Google (which bought Tenor in 2018) and Facebook want to become the custodians of Gif. Facebook is eager to make “your daily conversations more fun,” he says. This is undoubtedly true; the Gif will retain its decades-old ability to delight and entertain. But his new role in the social media ecosystem represents, according to Miltner, a “multi-level commodification of emotional expression, at the most intimate level.”