The GIF Economy 2016 Cycle



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, “vape” for 2014 and “Tears of Joy” emoji for 2015,


GIF land remained undeniably creative in its output. While Imgur still rules the social media roost for GIF meme initiations, the ubiquity of Instagram as a portal first for Vine videos and then adding their own video function in 2014, the presence of motion looping has become part of everyday image, news and comedy sharing, often starring cats, dogs, goats, bears, even kangaroos.


The art world has its own creative response systems, like those GIFs inspired by anonymous British street artist Banksy’s New York City Residency in 2013, now featured in a 2015 documentary, “Banksy Does New York.” See link some brilliant Banksy GIFs, like this one:


GIFs are in some ways crosscultural emoticons, providing shorthand punchlines and commentary, jokes and asides that often shape the discourse of political and pop culture? In the journalism universe, GIFs are being used extensively for political and social commentary. Some GIFs render those “who can’t take a joke” ridiculous. Remember Binders Full of Women, a reverence to a gaffe made by 2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney? What began as a live-tweeting riff during the 2012 Presidential debates morphed into a GIF-frenzy.
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.

And the 2016 Election GIF giving is just getting started…

Clinton Bernie


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.

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
Jenna Wortham’s coverage of the 2012 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 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 15 comments

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  1. Morgan Gildersleeve

    As an avid Tumblr user, I have always been a fan of the GIF, and how it never failed to capture my attention. I bring up Tumblr in relation to this article, because I believe that is the first outlet that I ever saw a GIF. As a visual person, tumblr has always been a place for me to scroll aimlessly, as a look for thinks that might spark my attention or inspire me. I found what Clive Thompson stated interesting–that a GIF catches our attention in the vast sea of visuals, and lets us to stop and ponder a single moment in the stream, in order to Reese something that might have otherwise been blown by. Since the very first time I saw a GIF, this form of imagery has spread and can now be seen on all social media platforms as well as websites, blogs, online magazines, the list goes on…but what has remained constant is the fact that it never ceases to capture my attention in the very chaotic Internet world. Furthermore, as a person who appreciates creativity as well as humor, I love the idea of taking a stagnant image and turn it into a GIF that now tells a full, animated story.

    • Kathleen Sweeney

      This point is key: “it never ceases to capture my attention in the very chaotic Internet world” …that is why emojis and GIFs have become so popular. Text blurs on the screen but the click-moment of cognition when image+text or image+emotion come together is in some ways a pause in the info-stream. You laugh, you listen, you respond or share. Interesting.

  2. Christina Murray

    We are very visual as human beings, and our attention spans are extremely short. GIF’s are a way to get you to stop for a moment in a constantly changing world. They can be extremely hilarious, artistic or political. I absolutely loved the Banksy GIF.

  3. Chloe Wang

    In recent years, GIFs have grown to be extremely popular. I used to see GIFs mainly on Tumblr only but now they have it on Facebook messenger where one can send GIFs to friends. Not only that but, there are iPhone applications one can download that allows one to send GIFs through iMessaging. The GIFs that I usually come across are humorous ones or creative ones. I never really thought of how GIFs can be used in education or in more serious topics such as history and politics. I find it interesting that GIFs can be used in teaching because it’s something that I haven’t thought about before, that they can “evoke more of the story in archival history than a single 2D image. And motion is the key to unlocking potential narratives.” I agree with this because GIFs turn still images into life by animating them, and it can give them more value and help tell a story.

    • Kathleen Sweeney

      The explosion of the use of the Internet since the 90s has ushered in many new forms of storytelling. And no, printed books did not go away, they were joined by a host of new story forms, including GIFs and emojis. And their morph-ability makes them incredibly share-able and viral.

  4. Anika Pivarnik

    I think that GIFs were the precursors to lay the foundation for the explosion of emoji use in 2015. I agree with what Christina said, as a society we now have extremely short attention spans. Why read a full article when you can summarize a reaction with a simple GIF? Why send a text with one or two sentences explaining your emotions when you can just use an emoji? This is also representative of the increased need for fast-paced productivity in our culture. Also similar to emojis, GIFs are increasing our ability to connect with others. As Heineman stated, “This type of mutually beneficial relationship between archivist and user would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago.”

    • Kathleen Sweeney

      Great quote. And the “which came first” piece would be interesting, and is part of the blurring of cultural boundaries in information sharing online. Emojis originated in Asia and provide a universal emo-speak. GIFs, as visuals first, interact with words onscreen but the motion story carries the connection more fully. It’s a visual medium, yes!

  5. Tara Shanahan

    I love GIFs! In fact, when I read this article the first time I just looked at all the GIFs you chose without even reading it. I like that artists like Banksy uses GIFs and they can be taken seriously, but they can also be so funny. As many other people have mentioned it’s a new narrative and a way of connecting with one another. It’s strange to me that this is more of an American phenomenon really. I work with people in London and I’ll send GIFs in emails and they don’t think they’re funny. There was one quote in this piece that talked about how GIFs don’t have sound so they’re more accessible, which I found interesting because it’s true. It provides an emotion, action, or reaction without sound.

  6. Rhea Goyal

    Gif’s (pronounced as Jifs) have definitely given a life to a specific moment captured. It is when my teacher says stop drawing start practicing 3D. I feel the experience a Gif can give is more fulfilling to the eye than a still image. But it is still relatively shorter than a video and without sound which is perfect for our short lived attention spans and quick finger swipes. There a fine line between the video and a moving still. But I ask myself is it even a still anymore? A GIF with text/lyrics and an emotional expression portrayed by a celebrity is one of my favorite genere of Gifs.

  7. Anna Mackie

    GIFs have taken the media by storm within the past couple of years. I am not an avid GIF (or emoji) user in terms of using them in conversation (texts, Facebook messenger, etc), but I thoroughly appreciate a good GIF. I enjoyed reading about Ann Friedman and her column, #RealTalk in the Columbia Journalism Review. I looked up a few of her pieces and found them insightful and telling into the world of journalism and the technological era we are currently in. Technology keeps advancing and introducing new aspects of media, GIFs being a current favorite, but I never truly understood the effects that it could have on certain professions such as journalism. It was interesting to learn and acknowledge that GIFs are a great way to communicate with a broader array of individuals because GIFs can break and live beyond cultural barriers, making it easier in sense for journalists like Ann Friedman to connect to an audience on a larger scale.

  8. John Wilson

    I find it funny the humanity went from cave painting, to written and spoken language back to using emoji’s, GIF’s, videos, hastags, tweets, snapchats and other forms of visual media to express emotions and communicate. This overview really does capture the extend of how GIF’s have evolved and the trajectory of where they are going. This being said, a world that is recorded, re-looped, magnified, digitized creating in essence as a altered reality. Speaking of which, it will be interesting how VR will fit in to all of this change. It will literally be the GIF that keeps on giving.

  9. Szu-Chen Doleon

    I found it very interesting of looking at GIFs. The very first “motion” picture added to web. It reminds me when I was still in my kindergarten. At that time, it was very hard to watch a video smoothly. I was immediately addicted of looking GIFs. I can spend ten or so minutes looking a single GIF.
    Nowadays, it’s very easy to watch video on computer. However, GIFs still have its importance.

  10. Yiwen Li

    About a year ago, Facebook decided to build Reactions expression package. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg want to provide users with more articles and other users to interact. He believes that, like the original key point is not representative of all users of the idea, after all, not all of which articles can be liked. After discussion, they made ?GIF? of these expressions, in order to better enhance the user experience. GIF is my favorite in contact. There is a phone app called “Wechat”, it is a social message app in China. We are love to use this app because we can add funny GIFs and created our own GIFs in this app. GIF can gives us more fun, and express the reaction of people in the mood for dialogue, also it could avoid the awkward conversation.

  11. Kristi T

    I still feel somewhat confused by GIFs as I do with memes I never really got into them. Both I see on Tumblr and in Buzzfeed articles. 95% of the time they’re goofy commentary and they give a laugh but I don’t see them as the big deal that they have become in our internet generation. It’s interesting to see the Live Feed that is now an addition to photo taking on iPhones as an addition to the internet moving picture world, a “cousin” to the GIF as I see it. This again really does not hold appeal to me. I don’t believe in the strength of a GIF , aiding or disengaging a user with information from a speech or tv show star moment. It can pull important information such as the Obama GIF used in this article. Which to those who had not heard the entire piece will look to it on the internet and engage in it’s entirety.

  12. Madison Porter

    So sorry I didn’t realize I didn’t post anything for this topic. I absolutely love GIFs and think they’re hilarious. Like they said in the PBS video, they are pictures coming to life. People clearly love finding and watching funny videos on the internet, so a GIF is like a super short video that people can share and experience while connecting to pop culture. It is almost unavoidable to not see a GIF on current events nowadays.
    It is something that everyone can be involved with, which I think is necessary with all the social media platforms we have today. Anyone can create or share one, this makes these short animated clips even more appealing to people in today’s internet driven society.

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