Storytelling in the GIF Economy



The shorthand capacity of the GIF has aided and abetted viral meaning blitzes to such an effective degree, the Oxford University Dictionaries USA named “GIF” its 2012 word of the year, over “Eurogeddon” and “Superstorm.” And not just the noun, but also the verb, “to GIF” (or not to GIF). The ubiquity of GIFs across viral meme-land remains undeniable, with journalists, bloggers, multimedia artists and web designers layering their offerings with loopy looping images, expanding possibilities for shorthand cultural critique and creativity. While “selfie” took the prize for 2013’s word of the year, GIF land remained undeniably creative in its output (see GIF land above inspired by Banksy’s New York City Residency this year…)

Are GIFs the new crosscultural emoticons?

(Ellsbeth Reeve, The Atlantic)

In the journalism universe, GIFs are being used extensively for political and social commentary. During the 2012 U.S. presidential elections, Tumblr hosted a live #GIFOFF on their GIFwich site. These GIFs morphed into memes which traveled the social media arenas lightning-fast, influencing the election narrative. Political cartoons in motion, their punchlines reached mainstream media coverage. Remember Binders Full of Women? That began as a live-tweeting riff during the 2012 Presidential debates and morphed into a GIF-frenzy:

(Know Your Meme)

The Nieman Journalism Lab
has this take on the effectiveness of GIFs:

The GIF, invented by CompuServe in 1987, has many advantages over video: It requires no Flash and works in any browser on any device. It is silent, and therefore viewable in environments where sound is not available or desirable (i.e., the office). It’s incredibly shareable, as any visit to Tumblr will attest. And, perhaps most interestingly, a GIF is harder to take down than, say, a YouTube video, where one DMCA notice or the whim of the uploader can turn a video into a black void.

Like any disruptive, creative medium, the GIF is easy to spread and difficult to control. The files are small; anyone can host them without relying on third-party servers. Most importantly, a GIF is a moving story compressed to its most essential form.

and the 2012 Election Cycle:

A PBS doc “Animated GIFs: The Birth of an Artform” provides another take on GIF innovation:

Highly recommended in GIF country innovation:

Sean Godsey’s Scanned Life
Politico GIFs at GIF Hound
Jenna Wortham the Summer Olympics at The New York Times: “Digital Diary: How GIFs Became the Perfect Medium for the Olympics

….and a the launch of The Stereogranimator, an open source, DIY GIF animation tool for vintage photographs by none other than The New York Public Library.


Mashable and Know Your Meme actively track the life cycles of GIFs a part of Internet and pop culture, but most GIFs originate in the Tumblr sphere. They have become a collective means of revisiting ideas traveling too quickly through the info-saturated Internet. As Clive Thompson notes in Wired, “the animated GIF lets us stop and ponder a single moment in the stream, to resee something that otherwise would zip by unnoticed.”

Some of the best pop culture GIF-riffers include live GIFing events with Dianna McD, the wacky weirdness of topherchris, and Lacey Micallef‘s retro rainbow cartoon visions.

Layered Headlines to Engage Readers

Ann Friedman, a freelance journalist, writes a column for the Columbia Journalism Review, #RealTalk, which uses GIFs as layered headlines. The series evolved from her own highly trafficked Tumblr blog, #RealTalkfromYourEditor. She explains, it “was largely an accident. I wasn’t planning to be a commentator on GIF culture, to blow up the journalism world. It was really just a late night whim created as part of this broader Tumblr meme.

#Realtalkfromyoureditor brilliantly layers Tumblr GIF/headline combinations with hotlinks to her published articles at other venues, where GIFs serve as echo-quotations to her expert advice to writers on pitching, editors, crowdfunding a Kickstarted single-issue magazine called Tomorrow, and the differences between blogging and reporting.

What she has discovered: the shorthand capacity of the GIF allows her work to reach audiences beyond traditional journalism.

“Not everything is not going to be for everyone, but I actively think of being in different spaces and reaching multiple audiences, which is one of the reasons why it’s so awesome to be a journalist in 2013. In the pre-Internet era, it would’ve been almost impossible to tap into that many different audiences or speak to that many different kinds of people.”

Her how-to for Poynter “What Journalists Need to Know About Animated GIFs–Really” is a must-read.

Just after GIF became word of the year in 2012, Katherine Martin, head of the US dictionaries program at Oxford stated in BetaBeat, “The GIF has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications including research and journalism, and its lexical identity is transforming to keep pace.”

Elspeth Reeve at The Atlantic Wire, another GIF-friendly journalist, uses live GIFs as part of her political commentary, and during the Summer 2012 Olympics, analyzed athletic performances through the frame by frame looping of GIFs, something a two-dimensional print publication could never do. Her GIFs traveled through the 2012 London Summer Olympics analysis and euphoria…

(Ellsbeth Reeve, The Atlantic)

….and have already begun with pre-coverage of Sochi’s 2104 Winter Olympics.

lead_large(Ellsbeth Reeve, The Atlantic)

Connecting with Audiences Visually

While most GIFs relate to pop culture, sports and celebrities, opening a visual field day for journalists and pop culture commentators, GIFs have paved an entire creative avenue for writers and publishers looking to find new ways to connect with audiences visually. From GIF avatars in a twitter feed to blogs embeds, to animated book covers, the most creative teams and individuals have already been plastering Tumblr with humorous images. Cats are the de facto animals of the GIF world. Their association with bookstores, bespectacled damsels surrounded by books and the like make a literary case for Grumpy Cat GIFs, as this example from Chronicle Books demonstrates:

GIF. Credit: Chronicle Books

The Daily Dot’s Celebration of GIF’s 25 Year Anniversary timelines a complete overview of the medium, from its humble origins as a Compuserve invention in 1987, with a gallery of museum grade GIFs provided by some of the most creative GIF animators out there, including the work of Olia Lialina, who has been producing GIF artworks since the ’90s. Her series, “Pages in the Middle of Nowhere,” makes intergalactic use of newspapers and animation, ripping front page headlines to reveal twinkling space, including a French and New York newspaper edition.

Lialina is the author of Digital Folklore (2009) which examines the emergence of cultural kitsch as a crowdsourced artform:

“Technical innovations shape only a small part of computer and network culture. It doesn’t matter much who invented the microprocessor, the mouse, TCP/IP or the World Wide Web; nor does it matter what ideas were behind these inventions. What matters is who uses them. Only when users start to express themselves with these technical innovations do they truly become relevant to culture at large. […] In fact this evolving vernacular, created by users for users, is the most important, beautiful and misunderstood language of new media.”
Giving Archives New Life

In early 2012, The New York Public Library launched The Stereogranimator, an online, open source, DIY GIF animation tool using the library’s vast collection of vintage stereographs. The web project, which has given a historic medium new life, was originally inspired by San Francisco writer and artist Joshua Heineman, who started creating his own moving images from Library stereograms as an art project for his blog,, in a project called Reaching for the Out of Reach.

GIF Credit: Joshua Heineman and NYPL

As Heineman’s explains in an essay in the Huffington Post: “This kind of mutually beneficial relationship between archivist and user would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago.”

The whole notion of the GIF relies on the Open Source shareware of Creative Commons. That a public library would engage with this technology as an opportunity to expand audience interactivity marks a brilliant page-turn, opening public archives to innovative dialogues.

GIFs in this collection manage to evoke more of the story in archival history than a single 2D image. And motion is the key to unlocking potential narratives.

As Jennifer Schuessler notes in the New York Times, “The Stereogranimator also reflects how the library itself is changing, using digital technology to open its collections to patrons in new ways.”
Bookish Contributions

Other book-ish additions to the GIF economy include Amanda Nelson’s series “When Authors Attack Libraries: A GIF Response”, featuring Scarlett O’Hara dramatics over at BookRiot,  and a Pride and Prejudice-inspired Tumblr. For the comic book geeks, there’s Kerry Callen’s Animated GIFs for Famous Comic Book Covers.

With the evolution of the GIF and the recent emergence of technologies like Vine, writers, publishers and mediamakers now how access to a plethora of tools for journalism, creative approaches to the synergistic merging of words and images. These kinds of 3D metaphors will continue to proliferate online like lyrics to pop songs you can’t get out of your head.

Interested in locating that perfect pithy GIF for your next blog post? there’s now a Google Search for that! And if you want to learn how to make GIFs, check out these DIY instructions from J.D. Biersdorfer: “Q&A Animating Your Own GIF.” Here’s to adding to the abundant stream of memes!
Recommended GIF Explorations

The Creators Project: “Best GIFs of 2013

Alex Williams, New York TimesFresh From the Internet’s Attic

There are 29 comments

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    • bill ritter

      maybe it’s generational, but i feel as if i’m trying to read and speak in a foreign language. it’s more a gimmick than a communication tool , IMHO. i mean there are occasionally the GIF that resonates, but most seem to me at least to lack substance. visual cotton candy. and i say that with all due respect – and admiration for the ability to produce these things. but unless they make a substantive point, what’s the point?

    • bill ritter

      so i’ve re-read Kathleen’s entry, and thought of re-framing the importance of GIFs in light of the Brian Williams scandal. (And that’s what it is – it affects, in terms of the public’s confidence in the credibility of who presents their news and information, news organizations of every stripe, not just nbc.) brian is the focus of many gifs, in part because he has made himself available to participate in entertainment shows across many platforms. his network has fostered this kind of cross pollination fame building, and brian clearly enjoys it. and he’s very good at it – whether it be a skit on snl, or a bit role on 30 rock, or as a guest on a talk show.
      his willingness to self deprecate has made him an easy target (not in the pejorative way) of folks putting together gifs of brian williams. but now that he’s in a crisis over credibility, those gifs are kind of haunting, because they raise the specter or at least the fundamental question of this network news anchor embellishing his own personal role in front of the camera.
      the old don henley song, “dirty laundry,” quotes the tv news anchor – “well i could have been an actor, but i wound up here.”
      is brian’s willingness to so eagerly participate in the entertainment side of his network’s business a sign of something deeper than just promoting his network news program? i think looking at the thesis of kathleen’s “article” above, and the gifs that i’ve found with brian in them, the answer might seem to be “yes.”
      i’m only disappointed that it took me so long since this assignment to understand this.

  1. Ben Ruhland

    It seems that GIF if the new norm or soon to be for various platforms of meaning just as Kathleen notes that they’re exploding with “viral meaning blitzes.” I personally find the fashion editorial work of Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck beautiful as well as taking on a post-modern meaning. Some of their illusionist images, such as the Bar Stuzzichini reflection of a moving yellow cab evoke an arty photographic appeal more akin to the aesthetic of the late great photographer Saul Leitner.”

    Whether they’re used as a statirical or “cultural kitsch as a crowdsourced artform…,” I agree that it is important for a memetic language that is food for thought. Both the NY public library and sites like have offered open access to their images to create GIFS from.

  2. Evyenia Constantine

    I guess I never realized how long gifs had been around. I was under the impression that they were a recent thing that was making the rounds on social media sites. The fact that they are so easy to open, and do not require flash is perhaps one of the reasons why they have become so popular; they are accessible.

  3. Lia Ferguson

    It’s amazing how the simplest things can be so complex. It is also cool to see how GIF’s tell one side of the story and leaves little room for interpretation because of its repetition and how blatant the pictures are. It reminds me of me.

  4. Emily Spierer

    I really enjoyed this article a lot. It taught me about the history and emergence of the gif within our cultural society, as well as its underlying meaning within our digital society. I’ve been familiar with gifs for a while and have always enjoyed them as pure entertainment, but after reading this article I realized that I never really thought about them on a deeper level. After reading this article, I now think of the gif as a symbolic representation of the evolution of our digital culture. The type of digital media that we are exposed to continue to shape our culture and our knowledge, as well as the ways in which we communicate with one another. Even though the gif was invented in 1987, I think it better represents our culture today, rather than 20+ years ago. Specifically, the recent exponential growth in technology has led us to want (and expect) to be instantly gratified at all times, in many aspects of our lives. The gif successfully fulfils this desire. It delivers quick and simple entertainment / knowledge that requires very little effort to absorb (unlike reading a long articles or watching a lengthy video). It gets the point across and is also very easy to share. I think the gif greatly contributes to our cultural society as a form of digital entertainment and knowledge, which will continue to grow and evolve with time.

  5. SeungMi Kim

    Though I have always been interested in those GIFs that emphasizes certain scenes of such longer video, I didn’t have any chance to get to know about its history. The article taught me those GIFs have been invented not long ago, and the how the social media forms have been developed with newer and more creative medium. As the article mentioned, the advantages of GIFs over videos, I believe, are very strong and effective so that so many people nowadays enjoy making and also viewing. GIFs are not only easy to open and share, but I think they also provides a much more effective way to transfer a message with its shorthand capacity and repetition.

  6. deisy

    It’s interesting to me that the GIFs have been around for so long since I didn’t heard if them until 2007 when I started using tumblr. Even though I didn’t know their name or anything about them, I thought it was a tumblr thing.

    I think GIFs help a lot when it comes to expressing emotions or a certain message without having to say it all in text. They even help when the text doesn’t fully convey a message. Like if you say “I love you”, that can mean a million things to a lot of people but when you add a reaction GIF then you know if that person is mocking the words or being serious.

    A good website to find GIF is and they even let you share on twitter & Facebook in GIF “form”.

    My favorite GIFs:

    I love Amy Poehler and this one is just great:

    This one is super cute:

  7. Yoon Hee Song

    This article is very intriguing because it made me think deeply about GIFs again. I never thought about comparing videos and GIFs because their format is different. although the concept is similar, I thought that GIF is considered as one of the image files. I really agree with the quotes that GIFs are harder to take down than videos once they are spread. since uploading GIF is easier and faster, it is more powerful to agitate society. GIFs could give stronger impact to the people watching it because it loops the same images over and over again.

  8. Kristin Ferrandino

    The resurgence and popularization of the GIF — I think — speaks less of technology and more on culture… or furthermore, human interaction. I remember when I was younger and communicating with my friends on iChat, I had a trusty (possibly overused) GIF folder busting with files ready to send in order to clarify emotions impossible to depict by only using words. Visuals are always key and usually more powerful ways of communicating.
    The GIF has become synonymous with online culture, but I had never really thought of its origins, cultural implications, or impact prior to reading this article. The ability to loop x-number of frames infinitely (not to mention on little bandwidth) forces a viewer to be sucked into a message, whether agreeable or not. They are powerful, powerful little ways of communicating and it was incredibly interesting to see how the NYPL was able to involve itself as well.

    • Kathleen Sweeney

      Do you still have that cache of GIFs? It would be interesting to explore which ones are still relevant….how long is their lifespan of impact? This is where a fork in the road occurs for GIFs as artworks and GIFs as pop cultural or political commentary. Art GIFs endure…the pop critique visuals go retro in an instant….

  9. Juyeon Jung

    Since I am always in love with beautiful pictures and everything, GIFs are the most powerful way to deliver their messages. It looks somewhat complex at first, but what it’s really showing to public is very simple; it just connects people from different culture and society in just few seconds. While I read this article, I could have learned how GIFs are made and how powerfully they are used in this world. For broad way of using GIFs, people can enjoy and share their thoughts and minds effectively.

  10. Jae Chan Pyo

    It is possible to see gifs everywhere. It is becomong a big trend among the netizens(internet+citizen). Big portion of posts and comments are uploaded with gif s. Gif makes the posts possible to stand out from other posts, giving the watchers messages or entertainment. It gives a strong impact to people in a few seconds, which is very interesting way in terms of communication.
    Not only I but also many people ariund me files of gifs, sahring them everytime they have chance to. It is fun to see this becoming an online culture. In my opnion, the reason why if is becomong so popular is because first, it is not time consuming and it is possible to give an accent tonyour own posts. This may last a trend for a long time until something so much better woild come out.

  11. Priyanka Paul

    This article was extremely interesting to me. Not only did I get the chance to learn a lot of facts about GIFs that I did not know about before, but I also thought about things I would probably not have paid attention to previously. GIFs have definitely become something defining the events and culture around the world. I have an application on my phone called ifunny, I am sure many of you are aware of it. It contains a stream of both images and GIFs that are added on everyday on topics related to what is going on in the media. I go on the app often and it is so entertaining to see aspects of the world like politics and sports being illustrated in such a humorous manner. At times I have even learned about an issue going on through a GIF and then only have a taken the initiative to read about it. I think GIFs are a very fascinating way of communicating and they are something that I personally pay a lot more attention to than images or videos. The concept of one person making a GIF on a topic and sharing it so that others can see and think about or discuss the same topics illustrated in the GIFs is an amazing way to communicate in a world where people do not have the time anymore to read long articles and essays portraying people’s views about a certain topic. Something I had not thought about before reading the article and watching the PBS video was how GIFs can be seen as artwork as well. The idea of GIFs being repetitive and humans liking repetition is really interesting as well and I agree with the concept. Watching something again and again embeds a deeper meaning in your brain and you tend to enjoy it more.

  12. Amanda Boyd

    Massively late to the game with this, apologies, work has been crazy.

    I thought this article was really interesting! A lot of “today I learned” moments surrounding GIFs (though I refused to pronounce it the “correct” way… a J sound seems so odd to on a word that’s on letter short of “gift”, plus, it’s like they’re talking about JIFF the peanut butter).

    My earliest memories GIFs are those (super cheesy) ones used on Anglefire blogs when I was about 12 (so cringe) which seem so dated now!

    I’m a massive fan of GIFs (could be Reddit’s influence on me…), they’re such a brilliant, digestible, sharable, method of communication because of their short, concise nature and ability to break the boundaries and barriers that exist with written (or spoken) language.

  13. Peta Mni

    So great to have found this updated article on the GIF Economy. Thank you Viral Media Lab! To be honest I haven’t given gifs much thought or ever really utilized them to their potential. This article was helpful in my realizing how I might incorporate them more. Pre-Youtube I used to enjoy making super short videos I called Xtreme shortZ, only to lament the technical difficulty of sharing them with friends and family. My how things have changed in the last 10 years.

  14. R.Stauffer

    Like Peta said, I hadn’t given GIFs much thought-honestly, I’ve never used them myself. However, this article changed my perspective a bit: It is fascinating to realize that GIFs have made their way from pop culture into journalism and news…since The GIF Economy article stated that they’re used for mostly political commentary (at least in a journalistic context), I wonder how that will affect the coverage of 2016’s election? It seems that GIFs are becoming more mainstream and it makes me curious how that will change the media’s coverage of events. Personally, I’ve mostly seen GIFs used in a humor context, so it’s interesting to see that they’re actually parts of modern story-telling and news coverage too.

    Elspeth Reeve at The Atlantic Wire using GIFs as part of her Summer 2012 Olympics coverage was interesting. I’m a former ballet dancer who is involved in lots of social media related to ballet. I like the look of the looping GIFs showing off incredible physicality-I wish this was something the ballet world would use, and it is definitely something I will keep in mind. Cool way to show the level of something.

    I do think they do a great deal for communicating tone…maybe GIFs are the new emojis? Also, I touched on this briefly on my blog, but, given the rise of ebooks, does anyone think GIFs could double as animated illustrations?

  15. Jacqueline Buda

    GIFs have really managed to find their place on the internet. The first time I remember coming across them a lot is when I used to read Buzzfeed–they used to do a good job of incorporating them into their posts, but for me it sometimes makes entries harder to read depending on what media I’m using (my desktop computer is slow, my previous iPhone 4 couldn’t handle GIFs to save its life). I think Buzzfeed is pretty tired at this point, but here’s an example of a clever use of GIFs:

    I don’t know if GIFs replace emoticons, but they do serve the same purpose. They’re a clever way to get a point across and have the ability to transcend across the world wide web.

  16. Roderic David

    This was a very interesting read! Like a few folks have mentioned above, I’m very familiar with the GIF format, but never have really thought about it in terms of its full potential. Most of the GIFs I come across and share are pop-culture related, so I would never immediately think of using them politically or in journalism, but some of the examples included were real eye openers to me about the many ways they are and can be used. (#RealTalkFromYourEditor is definitely my new favorite thing in life, btw.)

    What really struck me was in the PBS documentary the discussion of how GIFs really are supposed to be obsolete by now, but made such a strong resurgence in recent years. It makes me think a lot about the different ways we try to get out a message, and that in today’s digital times what may seem like an outdated form of communicating can actually be quite effective.

  17. Trent Shafer

    Despite being exposed to gifs, and the places to have shown up, I never truly thought of them as a new media platform. Rather, I merely assumed they were an extension of meme-culture. It was quite a shock to learn that they were older than I am.

    I think the evolution of an idea created for new media into an art form, isn’t shocking, but is definitely beautiful. I love that longtime art have found a new format in the form of a gif. It creates an opportunity to spread a message to an audience that may not have had an interest of being exposed to it. Ann Friedman makes a good point, in it creating a new way for her work to attract an audience. However, I see opportunity for it to become so much more than that. You have done an excellent job exposing your readers to the wide variety of areas where it is impacting change.

  18. Adrienne Santamaria

    I remember using GIFs back on Myspace, sharing them in a typical “cool kid” fashion. When I first started Tumblr in 2010, I used them a lot more and realized that they had evolved so much. Back in the day, they were just static laden images of text, sometimes with flashing colors or pixels. Now, one can hardly see a movie without finding GIFs of it in some part of the internet (sometimes within days or weeks of the release date).

    I have made a few of my own GIFs, mostly in relation to Pop Culture, like Youtubers and TV Shows. However, reading about the NYPL creating a place to make/view GIFs seems to put my silly GIFs to shame. I use them casually and I never believed they could have any educational value. Honestly, I never thought that these things would ever move past their roles as “reaction images”. I think that there can only be more uses for these GIFs if we continue to think outside of the box.

  19. Sean

    I love GIF images and I use them everyday. Whether or not I use them in text messages with friends discussing all things shady and crazy, or when I use them to tell family members what I think about their decisions, they’ve become a crucial point in how I communicate with close friends. Some of the images that I see (primarily on Tumblr) are more socially conscious, and they show moments that most of the mainstream culture is either afraid of, or culturally unaware of what’s currently happening. I think I realized that GIFS were going to become a “thing” when powerhouse website decided to use them in their lists feature where describes how people think/feel/react. I think this movement is awesome.

  20. Zoe

    I found Gifs to be especially interesting when thinking of the potential impact they have as well as they way in which they are changing how we receive news. I used to only associate GIFS with comedic posts or lighthearted entertainment posts. Now Gifs are used in major brand digital strategies. And can be a important tool Furthermore, Gifs are able to get specific points across by providing a more interactive experience for its viewers. I find with our generations low attention span and the need for quick tidbits of information, the GIF format is a perfect tool. Its power to translate across industries is notable. I feel it can affect real change by not simply telling people but showing people, different perspectives. I also feel that Gifs are a more emotional means of telling a story. This is especially useful within marketing and journalistic pursuits.

  21. Rachel

    I think it’s so innovative how Gifs are finding channels to reach the political sphere. There has been a large adoption of political gifs (acting as cartoons in motion) for the purpose of educating the media/poking fun at certain individuals. Gifs have such an incredible potential to tap into different audiences and grab the attention of the masses. Gifs almost act as a medium of news coverage in the fact that they are compressing the story to it’s most essential parts. The thing that’s so seamless about Gifs is convenience and the ability to share. A huge gap in the future adoption and growth of videos is that they are not always desirable in any environment. Gifs on the other hand, have no sound, so are easily accessible anywhere. I think it’s particularly interesting that Apple has incorporated a “Gif keyboard” within the settings to allow users to quickly switch across keyboards to send gifs. The simplicity of it is so genius and incredibly effective.

  22. Jennifer Chien

    I think GIF’s are an amazing creation to use to convey messages in a creative way. For instance, iPhone users have the ability to use GIF’s through iMessage and opens the creativity space to have a humor filled conversation flowing. They are able to be broaden into any subject and engage almost everyone. It is simplified in order to get messages across easily rather than typing everything out especially with today’s generations where they need to be engaged and have something to pull their attentions in which is where GIFs come in.

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