GIF Guru Ann Friedman on Building an Audience

In Feature Articles by Kathleen Sweeney

By Kathleen Sweeney

Ann Friedman, freelance journalist, editor and overall GIF aficionada, is the former Executive Editor of Good Magazine and a widely published freelance journalist. She curates a snarky GIF-blog, #realtalk from your editor which has morphed into an ongoing GIF-friendly column, #realtalk, for the Columbia Journalism Review.

A bicoastal denizen, she currently lives in a bungalow in Los Angeles. She spoke with Publishing Perspectives via GoogleVoice while she was driving across the Sonoran desert en route to Phoenix. (With a hands-free device, of course.)

Kathleen Sweeney: So if you were to tweet out a succinct definition of a GIF what would it be?

Ann Friedman: It’s an animated image. That’s it. A repeating animation in a compressed image file. And that can be the New York Time’s Snow Fall which is basically a browser wide GIF or it can be tiny like someone’s avatar on Reddit.


KS: You obviously have quite an ongoing GIF archive. Where do you source them?

AF: I get almost of my GIFs on Tumblr. I follow GIF-heavy blogs. I think it’s more about having a curated set. I wouldn’t ever just sort of pull exclusively from one. There’s one called Premium GIFS that’s pretty good, pretty all-purpose. The search functionality on Tumblr is really great; specific expressions from certain movies and pop culture are more likely to be turned into GIFs.

Sometimes I’ll know what I’m looking for.  Like, when, I did a State of Union GIF earlier this year. There’s all the clapping during the State of the Union address. I basically found a bunch of clapping GIFs that way.


The GIF headline format that #RealTalkfromYourEditor is based on describing an emotion or an event fed by a huge sprawling web meme system via Tumblr. Journalists were totally unaware of this when I made #RealTalkfromYourEditor. They thought it was a unique thing, not part of this bigger web meme.

KS: So you’re actually curating GIFs, quoting from other people’s material, not making them yourself?

AF: I did an article for Poynter about this and interviewed some copyright law folks. It’s really unclear who owns the material. Usually the person making the GIF doesn’t own the rights to the movie or whatever it is that they’re GIFing. So my policy is if it’s clear who made it I will credit it, but 9 times out of 10 it’s not clear who made it.

Some of the GIF creators I interviewed said, “Look, the whole point is to put it out there and watch people mix it up and use it for different purposes.” It’s not like they’re getting all bent out of shape over not getting credit. That’s the nature of the way this works.

KS: A creative commons ethos. Shareware.

AF: I make one out of every 50 GIFs that I do share. I make very few. I’m a visual person in that I think visually but I’m not a visual creator.

KS: In the Poynter article you mention a number of downloadable DIY GIF apps so I thought you were getting really GIF-ty yourself.

AF: No, I remain horrible at making them myself.

KS: You’ve been linked quite a bit to Elspeth Reeve’s work over at The Atlantic. Are you a fan of what she’s doing journalistically?

AF: A lot of staff journalists at The Atlantic and at Buzzfeed, are doing good work to make GIFs and use them in new coverage.

KS: I was interested in the way you’re layering your content. Your Tumblr blog leads to other publications that you’re authoring, so it’s almost like you’re creating a headline layer for your deeper researched journalism content. Is that something more writers can use as a model?

AF: Every writer who wants to be employed should be thinking about many different ways of putting their work out into the world. #RealTalkfromYourEditor was largely an accident. I wasn’t planning to be a commentator on GIF culture, to blow up the journalism world. It was really just a late night whim created as part of this broader Tumblr meme.

I had no expectations. I thought the GIF meme was dead. It just goes to show that there’s a just million concentric social circles on the Internet. While maybe a subset of my readers, or potential readers on Tumblr were saying “Oh God, we’ve seen this a million times before,” for another subset of my potential readers or in this case, employers, it was totally new.

So that was a real lesson, to tap all the different social circles that I move in, digitally and otherwise. One little ecosystem on Twitter, one on Tumblr, and then friends and editors that I email, a more traditional profession network, and my social friends. And I make these little hand drawn pie charts for the Hairpin, which is another social circle.

I try to be lots of different places in front of lots of different eyeballs in lots of different ways. I operate under the assumption that if someone likes politics and culture commentary and my column at New York magazine, odds are they will like my pie charts.

Not everything is not going to be for everyone, but I actively think of being in different spaces and reaching multiple audiences, which is one of the reasons why it’s so awesome to be a journalist in 2013. In the pre-Internet era, it would’ve been almost impossible to tap into that many different audiences or speak to that many different kinds of people.

KS: So you basically target-curate your content to selected audiences, as opposed to sending out mass tweets

AF: I promote everything on all of my networks–on Twitter, on Tumblr and I just launched a weekly newsletter that I’m using primarily for all my content, so people don’t have to follow my every tweet to keep up.

I have a lot of different homes in terms of who’s paying me for work and where things originally appear. Most of what I do is writing, just words, and GIFs are a way to reach people who might not necessarily want to read 800 words on the topic.

I don’t have an expectation that a column that does really well on Tumblr, that gets reblogged 150 times, is going to be similarly popular on Twitter. It’s always interesting to see what takes off where.

KS: Do you actively look in on your own analytics?

AF: I don’t actually have Google analytics installed on my personal website. I definitely keep tabs on what gets reblogged, which just comes up on your Tumblr dashboard, or how many followers I have, or how many people have subscribed to this new newsletter, how many people follow me on Twitter, that sort of thing.

But I don’t actually count like how many people have come to my site to read something. I use my networks as a way to promote that work, and promote it differently and you know, sometimes promote it in a number of different ways in the hopes of reaching different people.

KS: So this hybridized, multi-layered visual with the text you’ve evolved, or vocabulary that you’ve evolved followed losing your gig at Executive Editor at Good Magazine, or where you already using GIFs prior to that?

AF: It comes out of loving the internet. I just love the internet.

I have a certain level of enthusiasm for all of these platforms and networks and how they overlap.

KS: I loved all GIF avatars for the contributors on the masthead of Tomorrow, the crowdfunded print magazine you produced with former colleagues from Good. What’s the future of Tomorrow, are you going to do another issue?

AF: The economics of publishing a print magazine regularly are just terrible. If I had a partner who was more of a publisher/business minded type I would consider it. But you know, the sheer amount of hours that went into Tomorrow, makes it not super feasible to do it again.

And that was after what was by all accounts a widely successful Kickstarter campaign. So not only would it be harder to raise money the second time around, it would be harder to justify basically working unpaid. I would love to work with my Tomorrow collaborators in some capacity in the future. But it’s just, it just doesn’t make any sense.

I’m also asked a lot, “Is Kickstarter the future of media fundraising?” and it’s just like, that’s just a laughable question to me, it’s just absolutely not, absolutely not.

KS: So basically your Kickstarter success story allowed you to break even on the publication? [See Ann’s piece Is Crowdfunding the Future of Media Funding]

AF: We knew we would be working for no money, more or less. Our goal was to not lose money on the project.

Tomorrow now lives online, but I think one of the reasons the Kickstarter was so successful is that the product itself–the print version–was the incentive.

The nice thing about print–and the vast majority of our backers backed at the $15 level–was the requirement to get a magazine. “I’m going to send you money and I’m going to get this thing,” this physical thing.

KS: So who do you think in mainstream newspapers is making the best use of GIFs, online?

AF: If we’re talking about newspapers I don’t think there’s really an integrated example. There are digital-only publications, like The Verge, where you click to an article, which isn’t explicitly about GIFs, and there’s an animated image. What most newspapers are doing it right now is: here’s a story about GIFs with GIFS. It’s not quite this seamless experience.

This organization called VIDA published a series of pie charts that showed the percentage of bylines that written by women at a series of publications. I just layered them on top of each other to make a point.

There’s no reason why any publication couldn’t do that and do it way better than me with my Macbook paintbrush.


There are certainly like meme-y internet-y ways to use GIFs and I think that there’s also, if you think about it as a format, as a simple animation there’s a lot, especially in the information graphic realm.

KS: Especially given how effective infographics have become in translating public policy into understandable soundbytes spreadable through social media. Do many of your readers send you GIFs?

AF: There are a handful of friends who will send them. But the vast majority are from Tumblr. Sometimes people will tweet them at me. I don’t see myself as a source so much as a conduit for this world of Tumblr.

KS: In this info-saturated universe, the GIF is a bit of technology that has found relevance again.

AF: I don’t think of it as a quaint technology so much as a layered reference. The way I use GIFS is when I’m talking about something really serious I draw a connection to a movie or TV show. I wrote an article [for The Cut] called “How Mean Girls Explains the Petraeus Sex Scandal.” (GIF and word version.)

I believe strongly in high and low brow, serious and funny–marrying them–not only reach more people but to have a greater impact. I think people who use GIFs most successfully are using them that way. But really when you ask, What is a GIF?, it’s essentially a punch line.

KS: A way to lighten up really preponderant topics.

AF: And that’s something journalism could learn to do across the board, not just with GIFs.

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About the Author

Kathleen Sweeney

Kathleen Sweeney, a multimedia writer, artist and activist, explores the intersections of creativity, video, social media and social change. Founder/Director of The Viral Media Lab, and author of Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age, she blogs and publishes articles on media, pop culture, and technology, with creative nonfiction at Cowbird.