The world now speaks in GIFs and there’s a reason for it. GIFs accomplish what words cannot. German-language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that words are clumsy—i.e., they’re good at the literal but bad for abstract concepts.
And in this simplified culture where time is one of our most valuable commodities, it’s no surprise we’ve traded accuracy for speed: “I love you” goes from three words to one emoji. Because of push notifications and other modern phenomena, we’ve had to invent shortcuts to communicate as swiftly as possible. One GIF can now represent an entire sentence or an entire range of emotions.
And who’s ensuring we have the instantaneous tools to shorthand our way through every life experience? The major player in this space is Giphy, which has 100 million daily users and raised $72 million at a valuation reported to be $600 million. From its easy-to-use search function to its authoring tools and direct messaging integration, Giphy has created a visual dictionary of culture. Every emotion you can think of has been categorized and made available on its site. The big, lofty goal? Taxonomize culture in real time.
Fans should rejoice at the fact that Giphy has taken cataloging episodes and sound bites to a whole new level. Every episode of every show is translated into GIFs with closed captions. If you’re looking for one word from one character in one episode of South Park, there’s now a GIF for that (giphy.com/southpark).
We interviewed David Rosenberg, Giphy’s director of Business Development, on the future of content and how GIFs are changing modern communication.
V by Viacom: Why do you think emoji can’t compete with GIFs?
David Rosenberg: They lack nuance. You have a different accent, you have a different language, you have a different set of lived experiences—and yet the Thumbs Up emoji on your phone is the same one as on my phone. Emoji are really interesting. It is not a Western thing. It didn’t grow in America. But it taught the world about visual communication. It said you can construct something relatively complicated with a decent amount of nuance with just these funny icons. But it’s not big enough to house culture.
V: Are there ways that you see GIFs being used that haven’t been done yet?
DR: The obvious one is turning emotion into content—that’s easy. Another thing that is interesting to us is turning data into content. To give you an example, we’ve hacked together internally these little bots – If you wanted to say, “Hey, do you want to go to the park today? What is the weather?” and I respond with the Beyoncé survivor video GIF that also had the Brooklyn weather on it, that is interesting to us as well.
V: What makes a good GIF?
DR: There are people who are highly GIF-literate. Philosophically, what is a good GIF? It is one idea. It is one character looking at the next. People say, “What is the max length of a GIF?” and the answer is there isn’t one. But it is one emotion at a time.
V: Does communication via GIF feel like a uniquely millennial phenomenon?
DR: I hope not! I hope that there is something there for everyone. Going back to emoji, my mom sends emoji. My mom is not sending me Beyoncé GIFs. But there are things that I’ve showed her. To just give a random example, we have a lot of old sports content from the eighties and the nineties from Britain that you wouldn’t get. If I send this to my mom, it brings her back to this time. She feels the excitement and remembers this cultural moment. But Giphy, as it is right now, is full of Millennial, American, emotive content.
V: How do you think GIFs affect the memory of an event? Like an award show happens. Does it become compressed into that one most-shared GIF?
DR: To give an example, Beyoncé gave an amazing performance at the Super Bowl. She also almost fell over. GIFs have that potential to take that moment and blow it out of proportion. But I would like to think that people are going to be searching “Hello” on Giphy forever. What we want is to take someone waving from the stage at the VMA’s to their family and make that a canonical hello GIF forever. But people falling over is always going to be funny.
V: Do you feel like the office culture at Giphy feels like a start-up?
DR: The hiring at Giphy is dictated by this idea from our CEO called “the road trip test.” Don’t hire someone you wouldn’t want to take a road trip with. That means that we have kept our company artificially small. You would struggle to find a company that has raised as much or that has grown as slowly. For good reasons—that’s what we wanted. So we try and hire people that we like. Giphy started as a bunch of friends, so that’s the big social context of the company. There has to be an earnestness to working for Giphy, because we say that cutting and sharing GIFs is a way of celebrating the content itself. And if you can’t get down with that—I have friends who think that TV is the lowest form of artistic expression and are like “Why aren’t you going to the opera?”—that’s cool, but you can’t work at Giphy. You have to believe that popularity and mainstream culture is important. Because otherwise, you would drive yourself mad.
All GIFS via Giphy