August 8, 2012

We are in the midst of an animated GIF renaissance. What was once a relic of the Web 1.0 era, with MySpace connotations and an 8-bit Nintendo sensibility, can now be considered a timely medium.

More compelling than a static photo and more immediate than Web video, the animated GIF (correctly pronounced with a soft g) is a uniquely digital mode of conveying ideas and emotion. Like the Twitter hashtag, which has transitioned from a functional way of sorting content to its own part of speech, the animated GIF has gone from a simple file type to its own mode of expression. GIFs have grown up, and they are everywhere right now.

There are news GIFs (Gif Hound), fashion GIFs (Reed and Rader), arty GIFs (If We Don’t, Remember Me) and pornographic GIFs (you’ll have to Google those yourself). There is a whole subset of fan sites devoted to celebrity GIFs (from Beyonce to Bieber), artists who make psychedelic GIFs (Mr. Div) and people who keep GIF personal journals (Gif Diary). There are entire GIF-based memes (What Should We Call Me) and spinoffs of those memes (What Should We Call Opera). Even President Obama’s reelection campaign is deploying animated GIFs.

If you clicked on any of those links, I’m sure you noticed a common denominator: They are all Tumblr blogs.

The social platform, which allows users to see posts from all of the blogs they follow in a single stream (think Twitter, but with full text and more images), is ground zero for the GIF renaissance. It makes sense that animated GIFs’ fortunes have grown in tandem with Tumblr’s skyrocketing pageviews. Message-board communities like Fark and Reddit kept the GIF alive after MySpace fizzled, but it’s Tumblr’s highly visual structure and reblogging functionality that has enabled GIFs to go viral and find a wider audience.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that between October 2009 and October 2010, Tumblr pageviews increased 1,540 percent. The growth continued in 2011. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I searched my Gmail archive for references to the medium, I found the first links in 2009. By 2010, I had whole email threads with friends that consisted solely of GIFs. Clearly, I wasn’t alone.

But to later adopters who first noticed the GIF renaissance in 2012, it probably seems like this trend came from nowhere. Earlier this year when I created my own GIF-based blog, #Realtalk From Your Editor, I heard from a lot of older journalists who were amazed at my ability to “create those tiny movies.” If you count yourself among that crowd, allow me to walk you through Animated GIFs 101.

How to GIF

For the novice GIF-hunter, there are a few standalone sites, most notably Reaction Gifs, and unsorted heaps like Gif Bin and Gif Soup. But Tumblr is really where the GIF action is. (What? You don’t have a Tumblr account? Remedy that immediately.)

To get a glimpse, sign in to your dashboard and search for the “gif” tag. It’s one of Tumblr’s featured tags, which means that rather than getting an unsorted stream of tagged content, you’re getting a curated list. The “gif” tag has 27 editors, including Bobby Finger, who told me that he has two criteria for selecting which GIFs to highlight. “1.) Did I immediately want to send it to someone on Gchat? And 2.) Is it doing something new and special with the medium?” He picks everything from silly cartoon cats to gorgeous works of digital art.

Finger also creates his own GIFs using Photoshop. (Here’s a tutorial on doing this.) For entry-level GIFfers, there are Web-based tools that allow you to make your own from either a series of static images or from a webcam or YouTube clip. Sites like Gickr and Picasion allow users to easily generate GIFs, but the downsides are some fuzziness, a stop-motion feel and a watermark in the corner.

Here’s a quick GIF I made of the magazine stack on my coffee table. I used a series of still photos uploaded to Gickr :

I like Gickr because the watermark is pretty subtle. There are a number of other free sites that allow you to make GIFs from YouTube or webcam videos. Here’s one I made of Jonah Lehrer using GifSoup and a YouTube clip. I feel it illustrates his recent career trajectory:

You’ll notice that the quality isn’t great. I may be a GIF enthusiast, but I’m definitely an amateur when it comes to creating them. Luckily there’s a whole universe of GIF-making apps that allow you to sidestep clunky web-based GIF creators. The most popular is GifBoom, which is available for iPhone and Android. For iPhone users, there’s also Cinemagram, which creates GIFs that feel more like mini-movies. Both apps are free.

Even with these apps, the truth is I generally leave GIF-making to the experts — people like Finger who are using Photoshop. Most of the GIFs I send to friends or use to punctuate my tweets were made by someone else. When I see a GIF I love, I bookmark and tag it in Pinboard, where I can easily find it again. I bookmark direct URLs and rarely note the source.

Sourcing GIFs

“Unless watermarked, GIFs are incredibly hard to source,” Finger says. “If I happen to know the source offhand, I’ll definitely cite it. If I don’t know the source, I don’t. Attempts to find the creator are generally futile.”

He continues, “Unattributed sharing doesn’t irritate me at all. I think part of the unspoken agreement you have when uploading a GIF anywhere on the Internet is that it’s no longer yours — it’s part of the great big community pool we all visit when wanting to express how we’re feeling in the way nature intended: on a loop.”

But do even the GIF creators have the right to create tiny loops of material owned by a third party? I asked Andy Sellars, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, if I should be securing permission to post every GIF I didn’t create.

“The big question,” Sellars said, is “who owns what rights, and what happens when the owner of the underlying video sues the GIFfer? In terms of original creator, you’re probably looking at a fair use defense.”

He explained that under the Copyright Act of 1976, “courts are much more likely to find fair use when it’s transformative, bringing work into a new context. Most cases with GIFs, this would tend to be OK.” This is especially true, he says, when the original work is news reporting or nonfiction that’s turned into a GIF and used in an entertainment context.

Still, Sellars cautions, this is uncharted territory. “When you’re creating the GIF on your own, you are running a risk, however insubstantial.” The owner of the original material could sue. But “most people would look at that lawsuit as a pretty ridiculous overreach. Would a court find it’s fair use? There’s a good argument to be made it is. Would a company go through the pain of suing? Probably not.” That is, of course, if they were even able to trace the creator of the GIF.

Like GIF creators themselves, most of whom don’t attempt to track down all of their creations and claim credit, “courts recognize that appropriation art is in the cultural zeitgeist nowadays,” Sellars said, “that homages and riffs are a big part of how creators create.”

GIFfing the future

Armed with a fair-use defense and all of these tools, it’s time for journalists to truly embrace the animated GIF. Although I love checking Gif Hound for newsy animations, they’re mostly pulled from Web video clips, and so they tend to be choppy and fuzzy. Major news sites are already telling stories in GIFs, but again, the quality isn’t great. I would love to see animated GIFs created by professional photojournalists, in the style of The Boston Globe’s The Big Picture.

So if you’re a working journalist who’s still dismissing all animated GIFs as lowbrow Internet jokes, this is my response to you:

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