GIFs are portable human expressions. Looped images of grumpy cats, falling babies and weird Drake moves convey a barrage of information and emotions in a way that words and emojis cannot. While the format has been around since 1987, the ability to copy and paste it into a conversation is much more recent. It was the creation of Giphy, an animated GIF search engine, that made pop culture references searchable and shareable in an instant.
The site is like Google for moving images. The ability to pull up specific scenes and feelings has made GIFs the lexicon of digital communication. From emails and texts to Twitter and Tinder, the lo-fi visual format has made its way into everyday conversations.
When Alex Chung founded Giphy, he brought in a few friends to help set up the GIF engine. Now three years later, his startup is valued at $300 million and the team of 5 has grown to 50 people who are in the process of indexing every pop culture moment in America, past and present. I caught up with the team at SXSW in Austin over fried avocado tacos to talk about the power of a GIF.
What sparked the idea for a GIF search engine?
Alex Chung (CEO): Four years ago, we got into a nerdy conversation about analytics philosophy and the future of language. We were trying to figure out how to create a new vocabulary and think about what humans could say beyond just words. We noticed GIFs were the start of all of it but there was no way to find them. People had them on their desktop: That's how we would share them, copy them and email them. No one had created a search engine. We thought, "Wow, how many times do you get to do that?" That was the opportunity. In the beginning it was a fun thing, and we thought we would be famous on the internet for a day. We indexed tens of thousands of GIFs and launched it. Within an hour it blew up, and here we are.
Alex Chung, CEO, Giphy
What were your biggest challenges in launching Giphy?
Chung: The first was getting a good group of friends to work with the company. Having been with a number of startups, I knew it's hard to find people you want to work with every day. Companies go up and down, and you want to rely on your friends. So that was the hard part, waiting for everyone to not have jobs. The other part was scale. We've been growing so fast. We went from 3,000 visitors to 150 million people a month, so things break every day.
Chung: The only reason we use GIFs is that it's the only one that plays everywhere: iMessage, web browser and email. It's been around since the '80s. It's a universal language that was created to do exactly this sort of thing. It's not the best format for compressing information, so in the future it'll be another compressed video format, probably MP6 that auto loops and plays.
What do you think brought about the resurgence of GIFs? Why now?
Chung: The single biggest reason is smartphones. They give you the ability to take a photo and give it to someone. They're like books where you can put your idea in one and give to someone. To be able to send these images and information across to someone -- we didn't have any mechanism to do that. But now we have the technology to consume them.
Adam Leibsohn (COO): They're really lo-fi. So you can send them to any phone, anywhere. Bandwidth processing speeds [are] going up, costs [are] going down and smartphone penetration has really created this sort of perfect storm for content and media to travel around the world a lot faster in larger quantities.
Adam Leibsohn, COO, Giphy
Sending GIFs can be incredibly addictive. The images pack in a ton of information, but with every shortcut of human expression -- like an emoji or a GIF -- we seem to lose something too. Should people be worried about the ways it might impact language?
Chung: It's like learning a new language. In German, you can say a lot of things you can't say in English. Those non-translatable things that Germans say can only be expressed in that language. GIFs are a language that allows ourselves to express complex ideas and thoughts in ways that we couldn't express before. It really is a digital language where we're able to take advantage of this new vocabulary. Anything that's been digitized can be shared to convey messages. Is it bad? It's only a medium. It's only as bad as the written word has been.
Speaking of large quantities, you're indexing all of these popular-culture moments. Where are you at, and what does it take to import all of this shareable content?
Chung: There's an entire history of cinema and digital communication; we've only scratched the surface of it. What people don't realize is that someone made every GIF. It wasn't a machine. People edit these select scenes. Hundreds of millions of hours have been put into making these on the internet. It takes a lot of engineers, a lot of computing power and $100 million in funding. But we have a process in place to start importing everything, and it's only a matter of time. Google started indexing just a few hundred pages, then a few thousand and then a few billion. We're starting the same way. We're going to organize all the moments.
When you started indexing movies and TV shows, what kind of licensing model did you put in place?
Liebsohn: When we started Giphy we knew it would be smart to build relationships with content owners. We were very respectful about this from the beginning. If we're talking about GIFs being elemental pieces of culture, all of those cultural moments are going to come from folks who are building high-end content. From day one we started working with every major movie studio, TV network, production company, music label and most of the sports leagues. We wanted to make sure the content was new and high fidelity and that it represents the brand and equity they want. As a result everyone has Game of Thrones GIFs, best plays from the NBA and the newest Rihanna video. These big pieces of culture turn into language when you chop them up into little pieces.
We locked up all the content on the internet by working with these players, and now it's become real time. We're now cutting it up on the fly with our content partners. So we're at the Oscars, the Grammys, the Golden Globes, the debates, you name it. We have a partner that allows us to join them so we can help them amplify those moments. The partners become global with this information that people share, so suddenly your broadcast is with a billion different people because it's a GIF.
Is there a reason short visual snippets follow a five- or six-second duration?
Chung: GIFs are essentially scenes. Eighty percent of our content comes from movies and TV. We know that the average shot of a movie keeps decreasing over the years. In the '30s it was about 10 seconds; '60s it went to eight seconds, and '80s it was six. Vines are about six seconds. We know the guys there: They grew up in the '80s, and that's what they thought a moment should be. Right now it's leveling out at around three seconds, and that's our standard length. This just means our visual vocab has been evolving and our ability to comprehend information gets faster as we get used to visual expression. The format will change, and we'll follow it.
Jess Gilliam, Studio Creative Director, Giphy
Why does a GIF always need to loop? What does the repetition add to the message being conveyed?
Chung: It's three seconds. You look and it's gone, you miss the moment. GIFs are asynchronous. You don't have to be there at a specific time to see it. Looping takes emotions and shows them to you on repeat. Ultimately, there is some fundamental human need for repetition. It's how we learn things. It's even biological -- our heartbeat. Any catchy jingle is repetitive. It's another way to make us comprehend what's being said. Now artists are taking advantage of how they loop and they're using the form of looping to do funnier things, like all the infinity GIFs with seamless loops. The format is limited, but its artistic expression is infinite.
Jess Gilliam (Studio Creative Director): I feel like the format lends to conveying a different emotion or message too. It intensifies it. I know we find "fail" things really funny, like a kid trying to go into a pool and falling over: You watch it one time [and] you might laugh a little bit, but when it's on this loop and you watch it over and over passively? I think it changes the feeling.
Leibsohn: David Rosenberg [Giphy's director of business development] helped with integration into an app that helps kids with autism. A teacher told him it's really good for students because it repeats so the kids don't have to be nervous about missing the point. The simplicity of a GIF leads people to underestimate how powerful it can be.
Alex, you talked a little bit about the power of GIFs, brainwashing and "GIFnosis" in your panel at SXSW. Could you elaborate on that?
Chung: Three years ago at the New Museum, we did this talk about [the] Boston bombing and how the news was repetitively showing terrorist activities over and over. Sometimes it desensitizes us to what's going on, but sometimes it intensifies the fear. Any kind of propaganda -- when you see a clip of any violence, the news channels play it on repeat. In politics, too, repetition is wildly successful. It's a type of mind-control technique that's been used for years. Once people become aware of it, it doesn't need to be a big deal. But there is a responsibility in presenting that information, because it's going to have an effect on the audience.
You've just announced Giphy Studios, an original content shop in LA with Nick Weidenfeld, the creator of Adult Swim and now Fox's ADHD. What will we see come out of that space?
Leibsohn: We've been making stuff together with Nick for the last couple of years: GIF art, branded stuff or just content to reflect what's going on in the world. We decided to collaborate and make our official, original content for the web.
Chung: It's like Netflix. They started with other people's content. But they only had to have a few shows to be seen as an original-content place. We'll be focusing on high-quality, high-end content. Our original content will be a small part; we'll do branded agency work as well. A team of animators and editors will be working on it.
What is the future of visual communication? Are people going to GIF everything?
Chung: In the future every still image you see will be animated. In movies like Minority Report, Harry Potter or anything that depicts the future, everything is moving. We want all the content to show up in newspapers and magazines, but the technology isn't quite there yet. When we have the tools, it's going to be a huge revolution. When you see photos of your family, wouldn't it be better if they could be moving? Apple is really pushing Live Photos so you can experience the moment. Not only will every image move but we will also be able to communicate through them and express more of what we want to say. There's going to be a change in the way we communicate.