But will GIFs take hold as a new way to tell stories?
We’ve all seen the small moving images, preferably of cats being cute or people falling down, looped infinitely. GIFs have actually been around since the 1980s, but haven’t been used much for a while. Now, they’re seeing a comeback thanks to social media communities such as Reddit and Tumblr.
“A number of young bloggers and artists have found a new niche for the long forgotten GIF—it can bridge the gap between video and still photo,” writes Forbes.
The venerable Ann Friedman voices a similar sentiment that GIFs are “a uniquely digital mode of conveying ideas and emotion.” The name stands for the filetype Graphics Interchange Format. (Friedman helpfully points out the GIF renaissance has started a couple years ago, but is reaching full mainstream tilt now.)
Especially the blogging platform Tumblr, with its visual touch and reblogging functionaly, has pushed GIFs into online virality. Even President Barack Obama’s campaign team uses them.
Can news sites capitalize on this newfound popularity of GIFs among young consumers? There are three challenges to using GIFs in news. (Be warned: Hit the escape key if you want to stop the moving images.)
There’s a reason GIFs work great for cat videos. They often repeat comical or painful moments, such as falls. The form itself seems best fit for a 13-year-old, which is why it’s a bit challenging for news content.
The Atlantic used GIF images to explain the gymnastics competition at the Olympics. This was actually a fitting topic because you’re trying to explain why certain movements were better executed than others. But with more than two dozen (!) images moving simultaneously on the page, it has the same effect as blinking banner ads: unnerving busyness.
Often, GIFs are ripped from movies or TV shows, or reposted from elsewhere on the Internet. Even power users of GIFs admit that trying to find the person who originally created the little image is often impossible. Then there’s the owner of the video or photos used in the GIF. In the U.S. you’re probably covered under fair use. Elsewhere, not so much. What internet users often worry little about, news organizations should.
Actually, there’s a fourth point: No pre-roll. The advertisements that usually run before online videos fall flat for GIFs – and those ads are big moneymakers for news orgs doing visual content on the web. However, GIFs aren’t the same as video and won’t replace video content anytime soon. Rather, they’re useful for isolating one specific moment.
Are GIFs here to stay?
That’s why they work so well for sports coverage: They’re perfect for showing that one play, that one move, and the repetition helps viewers see the detail. In fact, during the Olympic games, GIFs have had a coming out moment, becoming such a mainstream hit that even the New York Times stitched together images by its photographers into semi-coherent moving pictures.
Yes, the New York Times published a story titled “10 Animated GIFs From London 2012″. Let that sink in for a moment. So it’s certainly fair to say GIFs have hit the mainstream. (One of the reasons is likely the restricted video rights for the Olmypics, which have precluded news outlets from embedding video of events.)
With the surge in popularity, will GIFs be used after the Olympics? They work very well for sports, but can also add snarky commentary to other stories, as Matt Wynn points out via Twitter:
He links to this animation. Using GIFs as commentary certainly suits the medium well.
There are ways to incorporate the visual ideas without entering full-on videogame mode. The New York Times has used a moving image, albeit an HTML5 video, on its homepage on Independence Day. It showed the Statue of Liberty with the water around it moving ever so slightly in the sundown. That’s a subtle way to approach the subject.
Another option is to pick your GIF moments wisely. Use a rocket launch or a sporting event. Platform matters, too: On Tumblr, there’s no need to worry about whether GIFs are appropriate. They just are.