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GIFs: A Key to Remote Communication?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a GIF by any other name (GIF?) would still be a compressed image..”

Okay, so as you might have guessed, high school was… a pretty long time ago, so there’s a chance that quote might not be entirely historically accurate. If Shakespeare were alive today I’m almost certain he would have possessed a strong opinion on the long-standing /ɡɪf/ vs. /dʒɪf/ pronunciation debacle. And he would absolutely be a part of team “Gif.” I’m almost certain of it.

The original developer of the GIF, Steve Wilhite, made it clear that he favored the pronunciation using the soft G or J sound, you know, like the peanut butter. But for whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to have done much to alleviate the current linguistic discourse still happening amongst friend groups at happy hours everywhere.

As someone known to possess abnormally strong opinions on matters like this, and generally of the belief that no hill is too small to die on, I’m surprised that on this particular issue I’m neutral. Say whatever floats your boat.

The History of the GIF

In case you didn’t know, GIFs are essentially small image files that are most commonly used to display a series of images in a short loop.

I’ve been familiar with GIFs for a while now, I think I recall first seeing them used on a friend’s MySpace back in middle school, but before a bit of research, I had no idea just how far back the GIF actually went. Its story begins before even the existence of the World Wide Web. Wild, right?

In 1987, the Wilhite guy that I mentioned earlier, and his team at tech company Compuserve, were looking for a way to help people exchange images without taking up absurd amounts of memory on their computers. Before the GIF, computer users who wanted to transfer images or share them via email had to use hourly subscription services which used up considerable amounts of space. So subsequently, Wilhite and his team figured out how to transfer images using a compression algorithm. They called it, the Graphics Interchange Format, a.k.a. the GIF.

Now, when I think of GIFs, I tend to exclusively picture them in the form of the simple animations we see in memes and on Instagram stories today. But initially, the GIF was only still images. In 1991, the first colored picture ever posted online was a GIF. I’m sitting here wondering if the Compuserve team would have ever imagined the primary use of their creation would be for social media clap-backs or snarky Slack reactions.

To GIF or not to GIF

Back in 2016, Giphy announced that it had surpassed 100 million daily users, who combined send over 1 billion GIFs each day…

So what is it that’s so compelling about these image loops? In such a dynamic space, how has a file format older than the internet itself withstood the test of time? What about them is so irresistible?

GIFs had an immediate and dramatic effect on early internet users everywhere and played an essential role in the online landscape. Even as GIF use fell out of favor, no other platform was able to replicate the success that GIF had found in the animation niche- what we most commonly associate with the GIF (a.k.a. the Giphy brand) today.

If the technology itself is no longer cutting edge, then GIFs must be filling a deeper void for internet users.

Using a GIF has a way of humanizing non-IRL interactions that can be challenging to replicate otherwise. Many studies claim that over 90% of communication is nonverbal. That’s a whole lot of context missing when communicating with a colleague via email or DM. We all just want to be understood, and in a remote world where you don’t always have the ability to convey vocal inflection or tone, or facial expressions or hand gestures- dropping a GIF with your text might just be the next best thing. A well-placed GIF has the potential to bring back at least a smidgeon of the nuance and humor that comes with interacting with fellow human beings in real life. In a way, I think the continued popularity of the GIF reminds us that underneath our desire to always be chasing the next best thing, we fundamentally just want to make a meaningful connection with others, and the GIF gets the job done.

A GIF can be many things, but I think the most profound GIFs are one’s with roots in mainstream pop culture. When you send a GIF to someone with a celebrity reaction from last year’s Oscars or a well-known reality star from a 2003 VH1 dating show rolling her eyes, there’s a sense of camaraderie immediately built upon sharing a cultural reference. There’s this sense of being “in on a joke” even if it’s one that virtually anyone would understand. This can prove valuable when attempting to form relationships with your async colleagues or customers.

It can also, of course, make asking a favor to a new coworker seem less intimidating, or signal that you’re actually a human being to a potential client. There are a variety of use cases for a GIF, but all GIFs have one thing in common—each one builds a bridge between the cold vacuum of the internet and the human heart. It’s the best solution we’ve come up with so far to make a personal connection via an impersonal medium, allowing us to meet the basic human need for connection when we can’t be face-to-face.

The Connection

I am currently working at a tech company called CloudApp.

CloudApp is primarily a screen capture and screen recorder software that increases communication efficiency (and effectiveness) for when you can’t physically lean over to a coworker to ask a question or when you don’t feel like having 25 Zoom meetings every week. Instead of spending two hours writing out an email to your boss explaining a project in excruciating detail, just send a quick CloudApp of you demonstrating what you mean (via screen record) along with the support of your verbal commentary (if you so choose). In a lot of ways, I feel that CloudApp is very much an embodiment of the very principle that made GIF successful- a tool that exists to humanize, and thereby simplifying, digital communication.

Another one of your options while using CloudApp is to use the GIF maker.

With the CloudApp GIF maker, anyone can create GIFs of anything on a screen and instantly save them to the cloud, all in one easy-to-use app. All you have to do is capture, share, and witness the acceleration of your workflow.

If you’re looking for a more practical example of just how effective GIF use can be: one of my colleagues has been A/B testing marketing emails with and without GIFS, and the GIF version gets clicked 8% more often. Quantifiable evidence that in addition to just being a fun little thing to send to your friends on Instagram, there can very much be financial and conversional implications to GIF use for your business. A GIF in a promotional email can be the difference between your reader reflexively deleting your email and engaging in a meaningful way, or at the very least spend an extra couple of seconds looking at the email you worked so hard to put together.

Choosy Writers Choose GIF

It’s no secret that GIFs have revolutionized the way we communicate online and have infiltrated just about every form of digital communication. Considering we’ve been using GIFs for over thirty years and counting, it doesn’t look like the GIF is going anywhere, anytime soon.

If you’re not accustomed to using GIFs in a professional context, I suggest sprinkling a few around here and there in your corporate communications and seeing how they work for you. You can start out by using them in Slack channels with members of your team to celebrate a win or remind about a meeting, and then maybe try one near a Call-to-Action button in an email to a client to humanize a sale.. Many of my colleagues who are now avid GIF-users might not have at first understood their value, but GIFs are a socially relevant and generally professionally acceptable way to add a little bit of spice and context to your messaging. So come on in, the water’s fine.

And I’m at least a little biased, but I do believe that CloudApp does possess the most powerful Cloud-based GIF maker. With an easy-to-use-and-share interface and a wide range of annotation features, you’ll be a GIF-making (and using) pro in no time. The good news is, CloudApp is free to use, so don’t take my word for it. Try it out for yourself.

GIF on, my friends. I’m going to go make a PB&J.

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