2017: The Year GIFs Go Mainstream

Andrew Littlefield By Andrew Littlefield March 28, 2017

Every year, my college buddies and I do a March Madness bracket group, and my mom always joins.

She’s actually won it a few times—a fact that she never lets us live down. In fact, I can almost guarantee that all March long, my phone will be buzzing with smack talk from my own mother about how her bracket is doing better than mine.

But this year, she’s stepped it up to a new level. This year, my mom discovered the GIF keyboard on Facebook Messenger. And she is absolutely crushing it.
march madness trolling

(spoiler alert: it was not her last photo)

Throughout the tournament, we have an ongoing Facebook group chat of everyone in the bracket challenge, so not only is she trash talking me, but she’s doing it in front of all my friends. It’s impressive, really.

But her entrance into the GIF world points to a fact that I would not have seen coming six years ago: GIFs have gone mainstream.

The Repetitive Renaissance

There was a time when GIFs were cutting edge tech. Back in 1987, CompuServe introduced the Graphics Interchange Format as a way to handle color images in a lightweight package. Eight years later, Netscape introduced support for animated GIFs. Pretty soon, animated images were the internet’s favorite gimmick, with sites like becoming one of the digital world’s first viral hits in 1998—all thanks to the GIF.

After a few years though, GIFs started to lose their shine. Their overuse led them to be associated with cheap design and Geocities websites. They were cheesy relics, with no future in the world of modern day digital video.

But then, something happened. Starting in late 2011, interest in GIFs started picking back up, thanks in large part to sites like Tumblr, where it became popular to use GIFs to convey reactions to frustrating situations. More people were searching for GIFs online—they were hot again.

And sitting at the center of all that has been GIPHY.

GIPHY is a GIF search engine—enter a query, and it returns to you a flood of repeating, flashing boxes, soaked in glitter and Millennial snark.


Searching with GIPHY is most definitely a sensory-overload kind of experience; everything writhes and moves like a rat king being sprayed by a garden hose—just with a lot more color.

But here’s the thing: it’s not just weird, internet jokes anymore. The GIF has invaded the mainstream. It’s even becoming an acceptable communication tool in the office—and not just tech startups staffed by 20-35 year olds. One of GIPHY’s most popular tools is their Slack integration, which makes it easy to zip GIFs back-and-forth over work conversations. All told, they serve up over one billion GIFs a day—you’re kidding yourself if you think none of those are making their way into the office.

So what happened? How has a 30 year old technology changed the way we communicate?

Eyes Without a Face

It’s certainly not a stretch to say that the internet has changed the way we communicate, decreasing the amount of face-to-face interactions we engage in on a daily basis. A flood of text-based communication has robbed us of a lot of context we typically receive when looking at a person directly while speaking.

No tone of voice, no smiles or frowns, no eye contact—how are you supposed to read someone’s reaction or mood in those circumstances?

Essentially, the way we communicate evolved faster than our ability to adapt to it. For years, we’ve struggled to cope with this change—we awkwardly placed punctuation marks shaped like smiles ( 🙂 ) in our messages to convey emotion and laced our emails with exclamation points to turn a curt “thank you” into something more grateful-sounding.

Dig through some old newspaper articles on the subject and you’ll get a good laugh—befuddled reporters struggling to explain “emoticons” and email etiquette to a confused audience.

Newspaper explains emoticons

Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY), 09/07/1993

Emojis were a logical solution to this problem. They’ve been around since the late 90s in Japan, but didn’t make their way to the United States until 2010—noticeably, right around the time that GIFs started regaining some of their former popularity.

GIFs (and GIPHY) have just taken the emoji to the next level—mixing in some animation and pop culture sweetness.

“I think one of the problems with the internet is that it’s hard to get your personality across,” says Julie Logan, GIPHY’s Director of Brand Strategy. “So adding GIFs and stickers and these little bits of moving data to our conversations helps us convey who we are in a more eloquent way.”

Business communication has always been a sort of weird alternate universe where old school conventions compel us to act stiff and “professional,” rather than our normal, humanoid selves. Don’t use emojis, don’t call people by their first name, say “greetings” instead of “hello.” But it’s easy for tone to get lost in all that gobbledegook.

“If I text someone and say ‘Hey, are we still on for dinner tonight?’ they could just reply back with a simple ‘Yeah,’” says Jess Gilliam, Brand Creative Director at GIPHY. “But if I got that text, I’m thinking ‘Are you excited? Do you still want to hang out?’ So I prefer sending a GIF in that case, because I can really display my feelings with that visual.”

“It makes people feel something,” says Logan. “If someone does a major solid for you at work, you can actually convey the depth of your gratitude (with a GIF) so much better than just a simple ‘Thank you.’”

Over and Over and Over…

GIFs work because they feel natural. They capture emotions in a way we’re already wired to understand—facial expressions and movement. All it takes is the right tool to make their use easy to watch the adoption curve explode.

GIPHY has elevated the lowly GIF to an art form (quite literally), but one that anyone can get down with. With so much of our work lives changing and evolving, it seems backwards to resist showing some personality with something as silly as a GIF for the sole purpose of adhering to dated office decorum.

A “thank you” is more thankful—and trash talk more cutting—with an picture; one that repeats over and over and over and over and over…

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