Yesterday morning, Ann Friedman published a post on Poynter titled, “What journalists need to know about animated GIFs—really.” Friedman provides a comprehensive explanation of GIF culture, and rightly concludes that the ascendency of Tumblr as a blogging platform has facilitated the proliferation of GIFs. Although her post is targeted at late adopters—”Animated GIFs 101”—she has solid advice for journalists who might be more familiar with consuming GIFs than creating them. Friedman also outlines the legal issues associated with producing GIFs from copyrighted material and distributed GIFs that are created by others. But I wonder about her conclusion: “Armed with a fair-use defense and all of these tools, it’s time for journalists to truly embrace the animated GIF.”
In Friedman’s post, there’s one example of how major media outlets might implement GIFs. The Atlantic explained “Why Jordan Wieber Didn’t Make It” with the aid of GIFs, each of which illustrated part of Wieber’s gymnastics routine and the reactions to it. The Atlantic’s GIF storytelling is divergent from the most common GIF usage: the comic, and comedic, introduction of tone to text. The GIF substitutes for voice and body language; it is an alternative medium of connotation, a way for writers to indicate their orientation to a subject other than the written word. Needless to say, the kind of sarcastic and snarky attitude that accompanies GIF insertion would be out of place at most digital publications. The Atlantic’s implementation is interesting, though, because it focuses on the animated illustration of content, not tone. There are a limited number of contexts in which GIF illustration is appropriate for news reportage. For example, it would be in extremely poor taste to illustrate a disaster with GIFs. Saturating a text article with GIFs harms the user experience, too, because GIF heavy pages typically load slowly and may fail to load at all on mobile platforms. GIFs are distracting, and frankly, annoying. Even in cases where the context is tasteful, the tasteful deployment of GIFs is a tricky maneuver.
Friedman admits that the quality of GIFs is low. Image resolution, color, and playback are poor. For most GIF creators, however, the lo-fi look is an intrinsic part of the appeal. GIF culture, derivative of 8-bit video games and stop motion animation, fetishizes what might be referred to as poor quality. Would people entrenched in GIF culture—not so ‘sub-’ anymore—respond well to “animated GIFs created by professional photojournalists?” I am not convinced GIF culture is sustainable minus the fundamental aesthetic of the GIF.
Instead of GIFs, I’d like to see digital publishers working on better video implementations. There’s no reason why we need to see Jordan Wieber’s routine broken apart into short choppy GIFs when we could see it broken apart into short smooth videos. While the data load of a GIF is smaller than its video counterpart, and its creation is simpler—easy enough for a regular journalist—serious news reportage demands a more serious medium. Sure, the cultural valance of a medium can shift over time, as with the novel or even the newspaper, but the lowbrow valance of the GIF is embedded into the GIF itself. Until—or unless—journalists can develop an entirely new GIF style (which, I might add, wouldn’t be related to GIFs except in technical terms), illustrating articles with GIFs is unlikely to help publishers capture untapped audiences.