Something I like is popular now, and that is bad. Thanks to GIF databases such as Giphy, the reaction GIF, once a careful and elaborate art form, is now a bland mass market dominated by a handful of outlet-approved celebrity faces. Today Giphy sped up the medium’s slide into mediocrity by adding view counts to GIFs from “from an official Artist or Partner”.
The very concept of an official GIF encapsulates the corporate internet that co-opts, then squeezes out, the wild and precious independent internet. It’s the world of brands tweeting bae, of GOP memes, of condescending corporate brand pages.
An official GIF is counter to the spirit of the GIF. It isn’t a tool of expression but of marketing. Technically, it isn’t even a GIF any more — on Twitter and Facebook, GIFs are actually embedded videos, which is why you can’t drag a GIF off your timeline to save it, the way you could on most of the web for decades. Now if you want to find that GIF again, you’ll just have to rely on Giphy. As Popular Mechanics put it in an article linked from Giphy’s own press release, “The GIF is a dandelion, relentlessly cropping up along all the other flowers in the garden year after year. Giphy is a coat of asphalt.“
Until recently, if you wanted to post an animated GIF online, you had to find (or create) and upload it yourself. You might save your favourites in a local GIF folder, or remember intricate search terms for dredging them up on Google Images.
But in 2013 Facebook and Twitter both added native Giphy support, encouraging users to search a term and use Giphy’s results, or just select from default categories such as “Eww” and “Applause”. Now everyone is three clicks away from pasting a rapid loop of Shia LaBeouf, a stale GIF with the flavour of a store-brand saltine.
Partnering with Giphy also gives a lot of power to Giphy, which has a clear profit motive to favour brand-friendly GIFs.
Today, for example, Giphy featured GIFs from MTV’s VMAs, filling its front page with “official” GIFs boasting six- or seven-digit view counts. This isn’t so terrible! The VMAs are a very popular television event and people like to share moments from them. This is a sensible and useful partnership.
It’s just that next time you look for a GIF to express disgust or approval, Giphy has a financial incentive to show you those VMA GIFs, to prove to MTV that this partnership was worth it. So they will push you toward these payola GIFs, and your search experience will turn into an ad session without you even knowing, and you’ll be brought into the warm, tight embrace of monoculture.
Giphy is still an excellent promoter of GIF culture in general. You can upload GIFs from any source, or create them from a video file or YouTube clip. These are fantastic tools that keep the mad world of GIFs churning, but the flip side is that hosting all our GIFs on one official outlet renders them all subject to that outlet’s motives and weaknesses.
We recently saw the dangers of centralised communication when Facebook was caught protecting hate speech and punishing critics of government. Twitter regularly fights government subpoenas regarding anonymous accounts. Animated GIFs aren’t usually the medium of crucial political speech, but meme culture is a popular form of dissent in countries such as China, where internet users have to be clever to escape censorship. Centralisation makes it easier to control this speech. It’s a lot simpler to, say, stop people from posting “screw you” GIFs on the President’s timeline if you only have to block access to the one site that hosts all those GIFs.
But day to day, Giphy just makes GIFs boring. When everyone selects the same default options and posts the same embed of Katy Perry’s face with three clicks, the internet is dull to look at. So try searching elsewhere for your GIFs. On Google Images, click Tools, Type and Animated. See what’s new in Tumblr GIFs. Try search terms other than the Giphy defaults. Dig through /r/GIFs, /r/GIF and /r/ReactionGIFs and save your favourites, or find forums that fit your own tastes. Find something you don’t recognise from an NBC sitcom. Maybe even learn to roll your own in Photoshop. Whatever you do, find the most specific and surprising GIFs you can. Don’t settle for the same reaction face that everyone else is using.