Rewind five years and picture your Facebook stream. What did it look like?
Chances are it was filled with words, not images. Your Tweets were photo-free 140-character musings. Text was King in the social media space of yesteryear.
Things have changed.
Smartphones fitted with high-quality cameras and improved network speeds mean social media outlets have transformed into an online picture gallery where you could share your thoughts and experiences through images and videos. The emphasis changed as text was sidelined by images and video snippets.
The online world is shifting its focus again thanks to technologies such as the 4G network, which gives you download speeds peaking at 50 Mbps, and the 4K Ultra High Resolution, which runs at resolutions of 3,840 pixels x 2,160 lines. Suddenly the low-quality, slow-loading images that once filled your news feed are being replaced with high-quality GIFs that appear instantaneously.
The effect is infectious. The humble GIF, once the pixelated Court Jester of the online kingdom, has got its eyes focused on the social media crowd.
The GIF Revolution
The GIF has a chequered history. In the 1990s, dancing babies, hamsters and bananas amused and annoyed us. The GIF’s popularity waned until the mid-2000s when MySpace led a GIF resurgence, using the format to personalise user pages.
MySpace was soon shunted out of the social media landscape as it became too cluttered. Users wanted a clean and simple interface. They didn’t want GIFs. They craved the simplicity of the Facebook feed.
But, in the early 2010s, GIFs started to reappear in the comments sections of Tumblr and Reddit. These clunky moving images started to amuse people again and, before long, the Giphy GIF sharing site was born.
It was suddenly incredibly simple to find and use GIFs. Giphy is widely regarded as the Google of the GIF world, with their API recently reaching one billion visits per day. Google gets around 3.5 billion searches and Bing gets roughly 120 million searches per day. GIFs are all the rage again.
Such easy access and high distribution figures meant the likes of Facebook and Twitter began to take note. In 2015, Twitter users shared more than 100 million GIFs and earlier last year it introduced a GIF search. Facebook also officially supported GIFs and let users search for and post GIFs directly in Messenger.
Apple launched its Live Photos feature in 2015, where devices capture three seconds of video when you take a photo. It’s a bit like a GIF, but audio is also captured to effectively create tiny videos.
Marketers quickly jumped on the GIF bandwagon too as posts featuring those funny little animations suddenly boosted conversion rates by 103 per cent and total revenues by 109 percent.
Big brands including Calvin Klein and Disney partnered with Giphy to host their existing GIFs on their own branded channel.
Long live the GIF
What’s next for the GIF? The tide is changing again as everyday users, not just big brands and marketers, start to make their own GIFs and share them in the online space.
Why? Because the GIF gives viewers a tiny snapshot into your world; your daft jokes, your happiest memories and stunning holiday destinations.
GIFs clearly identify with both the “social” and “media” components of the social media world. From a social perspective, images are still a popular option. We share our photos online and tag friends and locations to produce endless albums documenting our lives. Photos are still the primary tool to communicate our social experiences. From a media perspective, video is a more prevalent force. We don’t read the news anymore, we watch it. We view movie trailers, music videos and even learn how to play musical instruments through YouTube.
GIFs strike the middle ground between the image-heavy social world and the video-dominant media one. GIFs provide a balance between the static image and streaming video.
The sweet spot for GIFs is finally here. Social media giants and society are both embracing GIFs at a time when technology has made GIF creation easy and fun again.
We’re at a tipping point and the result will be a landslide of GIFs filling your social media streams.
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I'm the freelance writer who gets tech. So, I blog on three core topics:
Science and Technology