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Twitter needs searchable GIFs for fun and profit

Its best idea for users could also mean big money.

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This week, a group of Android users noticed a new feature in the Twitter app: a GIF button that can be used to search through trending GIFs to drop into status updates. As you'd expect, the internet lost its collective mind. Twitter is the unofficial home of GIFs. Whether you're sharing a quick moment in time or trying to make a point without words, bite-size animated images are a perfect match for the social network's dynamic timeline.

Introducing a native way to search and add GIFs to tweets seems like a no-brainer. It's what the people want, which is good, because Twitter is desperately trying to create a service that more people want. If the company pulls this off, it'll appease the will of animated-image aficionados, gain some new users and (gasp) give the not quite profitable company another source of revenue.

A few years ago, developers and brands tried to convince us that "second-screen" apps were the ideal way to follow along with our favorite TV shows. For the most part, they sucked. In the end, the ultimate second-screen application was Twitter. Whenever there's a TV event, you don't go to Facebook to see how people are reacting; you head to Twitter. Sporting events, awards shows, premieres or even episodes of Game of Thrones see more juice on Twitter than they ever would on Facebook.

Twitter is in the moment; Facebook is "Hey, did you see that thing that happened a few hours ago?" Twitter knows this and plays up its part of the right-now aspect of its service. For the upcoming Super Bowl, the social network is going all out to remind users that it's the destination for real-time information.

Now Twitter has the opportunity to partner with networks to offer up nearly real-time GIFs of these events to add to the conversation. During last week's hilarious X-Files episode, for instance, it could have surfaced the following image:

It was a turning point in the episode, and if it had been available within the Twitter app, it would have been tweeted out almost immediately. Then retweeted again and again. As it currently stands, a GIF like this would be created after the show aired, by someone in the audience, from a recording. Instead Fox create a GIF with its branding ahead of time and have it ready to share at the exact second a particularly GIFable moment airs. They it can just let the entirety of Twitter handle its advertising.

To get these animated images into its system, Twitter could partner with consumer and entertainment brands. The GIF button would not only allow users to search for GIFs but would also surface trending and featured images. For example: The NFL could sponsor the featured area and fill it with GIFs of big plays from the game immediately after they happen. The trending section would have the top GIFs being shared at the moment, and the search field would offer up a library of GIFs for any situation. All of this in the Twitter app ready to go at a moment's notice.

This weekend's Super Bowl will be watched, as always, by billions. Twitter will light up with play-by-play commentary of not just the game, but the pregame, the commercials and the halftime show. Those comments could be accompanied by GIFs of amazing plays and halftime shenanigans. (Oh, I hope Left Shark returns.)

In 2014, Twitter purchased SnappyTV to help it quickly create short videos of live TV events. Going that extra step to create a GIF from those videos is simple enough.

Twitter could make sharing animated images easier -- something that's quite cumbersome on mobile right now. The by-product of that is relevancy. If it can get more people to join the conversation with these images, maybe, just maybe, new users will jump aboard for the chance to send GIFs about their favorite show or movie.

These topical GIFs can easily become the reaction GIFs of the future. The Abe Simpson snippet below is from Simpsons episode "Bart After Dark," which aired nearly 20 years ago. Maybe we're not all walking into a brothel and seeing our grandson working the front desk, but the bit works when you want to convey the feeling of walking into a situation and realizing you should leave right away. It's timeless and will outlast the actual show for as long as we use GIFs to communicate.

Plus, these GIFs could equal money. Twitter is not a profitable enterprise. Sure, it makes more money than ever, but it's not enough to cover the costs of all our 140-character tirades.

The NFL doesn't want you livestreaming its games from Periscope, but it might be open to feeding branded GIFs to Twitter. The UFC isn't a fan of you making GIFs of its fights, but it might want to create and serve its own.

Then of course there are the brands. Yes, Starbucks, Taco Bell, Honda, H&R Block and others will want in on this. But the beauty of the implementation is that users will determine which tiny ad will end up in their timeline. Most ads are lame, but there are some gems out there. I mean, come on, who doesn't want a Night Vision Top Hat?

Twitter selling your tweets as ad space seems, well, icky. But we're already making GIFs from commercials, movies, TV shows and sporting events. Users are pulling in video from streams and their cable boxes, using a variety of apps to create GIFs on their own, and uploading them to Twitter, Imgur, Giphy and Reddit. Twitter could step in and make it as simple as a search. Brands (ugh, brands) have the opportunity to control the message Twitter users see by creating content that works in a snack-size format.

In fact, it's already happening. PopKey offers up searchable and featured GIFs for text messaging, Slack and Twitter. It's also partnering with companies like Starbucks to create tiny, looping ads.

At the end of the day, users just want an easier way to tweet out GIFs. It'll be up to Twitter to figure out if it can make money off that desire.

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