Pando

The week of the GIF: A reflection of America’s culture and tech soul in a unending three second loop

By Sarah Lacy , written on February 18, 2016

From The Future of Journalism Desk

Back in 2014, Lightspeed general partner Jeremy Liew did a PandoMonthly interview with us.

I asked what one of the biggest untapped opportunity was and he said GIFs. Such is the absurdity and genius of Silicon Valley that the statement could have been a joke or not. In the case of Liew, he was very serious.

His bet was on Giphy, a search engine for GIFs, and this week announced that Lightspeed reupped, leading Giphy’s new $55 million round, valuing the company at some $300 million. Also this week, Twitter announced the world’s most no-brainer product move: Making GIFs as seamless to include in Tweets as a photo.

More recently Liew and I caught up and he made the point that GIFs are that they are the only truly American innovation in mobile messaging. Virtual goods, stickers, emojis and all the rest of the ways we express ourselves with something beyond words came from elsewhere, mostly Asia.

I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but that’s appropriate. GIFs themselves sum up the best and worst of American culture -- from celebrities to startups. It’s like a little looping window into our national soul.

Think of how much GIFs embody our cultural strengths. They take something creative and repurpose it a new, an echo of sampling that has made most quintessential American music forms from jazz to rap so rich. They rely on our love of mass pop culture as the great unifier across gender, race, age, and socioeconomic lines. Everyone of a certain age remembers where they were when JR was shot, when Ross and Rachel finally kissed, or spent Valentine’s day two years ago binge watching season two of House of Cards. It may have been the first time the President and I had the same evening plans.

Many of the most popular GIFs assume you are plugged into American pop culture and/or speak English, whereas an emoji can be used in any culture or language. It’s an exportation of our culture, an assumption you want it and get it and love it.

GIFs are non-committal, consumable, guilty-pleasures of instant gratification. They continue on a loop that never ends, because why wouldn’t you want too much of a good thing? Never ending is the new super sized.

GIFs also sum up a lot of the negative in American culture. People will complain-- yet again-- that GIFs make us less literate and give us an even shorter attention span. Indeed a Giphy executive said in this Bloomberg profile that his “attention span has been demolished” in the course of doing his job.

There’s something strange about how GIF’s co-opt a celebrity’s self expression to express what we feel. That somehow we think Jennifer Lawrence saying “OH HELL NO” expresses how we feel better than we could.

via GIPHY

That’s actually part of the thesis of Giphy. The founders of Giphy argued that GIFs are a more efficient and better means of communicating feelings and emotions because words leave too much open to interpretation.

Seriously. Jennifer Lawrence can express my feelings in a year old talk show interview better than I can. Yeeeesh. And you were worried about the effect Twitter had on grammar and texting had on spelling.

Consider the role GIFs are playing in the election this year. If you consider the impact televised debates had on Nixon and Kennedy and follow that through to the point where 24 hour cable news coverage gave us Donald Trump as a serious candidate, technology has made politics more about appearance and image with each race. And this year it may have reached an extreme conclusion in a several second looping GIF.

The best part? Presidential candidates are actually playing to the medium.

People have noted that Hillary Clinton’s social media game is so sophisticated, she speaks in GIFs. Indeed, members of her staff stopped by Giphy’s offices for pointers, just before the Benghazi hearing. Coincidence?

via GIPHY

Bernie Sanders may look like your grandpa, but he gets it. Sanders GIFs have spread like wildfire through his college age base.

via GIPHY

And they seems almost cribbed off popular Donald Trump GIFs:

via GIPHY

Speaking of, how can you articulate half of America’s rejection of Trump better than this?

via GIPHY

OK, on that one I grant you, Giphy, an angry eagle swatting at Trump does say it better than I could.

We are to believe all candidates suddenly forgot debates keep multiple cameras on the candidates? After the beating Al Gore took with his sighs? After the Iowa yell tanked Howard Dean. GIFs are actually dictating strategy.

Or considering how long GIFs have been around, maybe it’s more that this absurd election cycle is the perfect one for GIFs to take center stage. Presidential candidates want to look goofy-- and human-- instead of stoic and presidential. The GIF of President Obama bouncing around like Stephen Curry ran throughout my Twitter feed with the sentiment of “Aw, I’m gonna miss this President.” That was what makes people feel they’ll miss Obama. Not say, universal healthcare.

There’s also Giphy’s business model which is remarkably American: There isn’t one. Unlike, say, stickers which are a direct play at monetization, GIFs promise to figure all that out later with ads or something. Said Giphy’s COO Adam Leibsohn in that same Bloomberg profile, “There’s a lot of ways for us to make a lot of money, but instead of spinning our wheels doing it, we’re trying to get really big.”

Yep.

This week, with the new funding announcement came the next inevitable step of a Silicon Valley contender: Now we’re a platform.

This is more an observation than a knock on Giphy. They’ve tapped into the seemingly frivolous but powerful GIF in a way no startup really has, so I can see the appeal of the bet. Certainly coming off unicorn mania 2015, $300 million doesn’t feel like too crazy of a valuation.

But harnessing expression as a business is a challenge. All the more so, because Giphy is relying mostly on third party platforms like Slack and Twitter to reach most of its audience. Liebsohn told reporters this week that the valuation was justified because of Giphy’s ability to reach billions of people through other networks. That’s literally the same thing Slide argued when it was valued at $500 million years before it sold for a fraction of that amount. That was generally the investment thesis of the widget economy…. all of which failed to produce big companies.


I get the irony of writing 1200 words on something that’s so non-committal, immediate, and anti-literacy as GIFs. I hope for the future of Pando that business analysis isn’t yet better replaced by Beyonce dancing on a balcony in men’s underwear.