Storytelling in the GIF Economy

In Feature Articles by Kathleen Sweeney

By Kathleen Sweeney

GIF dictionary

Publishers and authors are putting several new internet forms of writing into inventive use, much of which compresses storytelling into tiny instant narratives. Twitter is, obviously, the most popular form being put to use: it was once a novelty for an author to publish a new short story via twitter, but now it is commonplace. When it comes to video and images, the book trailers have their place, but what now of the even more terse GIF? Are they merely a sophisticated update of the “emoticon” or something more?

The shorthand capacity of the GIF has aided and abetted viral meaning blitzes to such an effective degree, the Oxford University Dictionaries USA named “GIF” its 2012 word of the year, over “Eurogeddon” and “Superstorm.” And not just the noun, but also the verb, “to GIF” (or not to GIF). The ubiquity of GIFs across viral meme-land remains undeniable, with journalists, bloggers, multimedia artists and web designers layering their offerings with loopy looping images, expanding possibilities for shorthand cultural critique and creativity.

In the journalism universe, GIFs are being used extensively for political and social commentary. (See Politico GIFs at GIF Hound for some pithy examples). During the 2012 U.S. presidential elections, Tumblr hosted a live #GIFOFF on their GIFwich site. These GIFs morphed into memes which traveled the social media arenas lightning-fast, influencing the election narrative.  Political cartoons in motion, their punchlines reached mainstream media coverage. Binders Full of Women, anyone?


Mashable and Know Your Meme actively track the life cycles of GIFs a part of Internet and pop culture, but most GIFs originate in the Tumblr sphere. They have become a collective means of revisiting ideas traveling too quickly through the info-saturated Internet. As Clive Thompson notes in Wired, “the animated GIF lets us stop and ponder a single moment in the stream, to resee something that otherwise would zip by unnoticed.”

Some of the best pop culture GIF-riffers include live GIFing events with Dianna McD, the wacky weirdness of topherchris , and  Lacey Micallef‘s retro rainbow cartoon visions.

Layered Headlines to Engage Readers

Ann Friedman, a freelance journalist, writes a column for the Columbia Journalism Review, #RealTalk, which uses GIFs as layered headlines. The series evolved from her own highly trafficked Tumblr blog, #RealTalkfromYourEditor. She explains, it “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.

#Realtalkfromyoureditor brilliantly layers Tumblr GIF/headline combinations with hotlinks to her published articles at other venues, where GIFs serve as echo-quotations to her expert advice to writers on pitching, editors, crowdfunding a Kickstarted single-issue magazine called Tomorrow, and the differences between blogging and reporting.

What she has discovered: the shorthand capacity of the GIF allows her work to reach audiences beyond traditional journalism.

“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.”

Her how-to for Poynter “What Journalists Need to Know About Animated GIFs–Really” is a must-read.

Katherine Martin, head of the US dictionaries program at Oxford stated in BetaBeat, “The GIF has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications including research and journalism, and its lexical identity is transforming to keep pace.”


Elspeth Reeve at The Atlantic Wire, another GIF-friendly journalist, uses live GIFs as part of her political commentary, and during the Summer 2012 Olympics, analyzed athletic performances through the frame by frame looping of GIFs, something a two-dimensional print publication could never do.

[GIF Credit: Elspeth Reeve, The Atlantic Wire]

GIF Credit: Elspeth Reeve, The Atlantic Wire

Connecting with Audiences Visually

While most GIFs relate to pop culture, sports and celebrities, opening a visual field day for journalists and pop culture commentators, GIFs have paved an entire creative avenue for writers and publishers looking to find new ways to connect with audiences visually. From GIF avatars in a twitter feed to blogs embeds, to animated book covers, the most creative teams and individuals have already been plastering Tumblr with humorous images. Cats are the de facto animals of the GIF world. Their association with bookstores, bespectacled damsels surrounded by books and the like make a literary case for Grumpy Cat GIFs, as this example from Chronicle Books demonstrates:

GIF. Credit: Chronicle Books

GIF Credit: Chronicle Books

A PBS doc “Animated GIFs: The Birth of an Artform” provides another take on GIF innovation, especially its impact on fashion journalism and marketing:

The Daily Dot’s Celebration of GIF’s 25 Year Anniversary timelines a complete overview of the medium, from its humble origins as a Compuserve invention in 1987, with a gallery of museum grade GIFs provided by some of the most creative GIF animators out there, including the work of Olia Lialina, who has been producing GIF artworks since the ’90s. Her series, “Pages in the Middle of Nowhere,” makes intergalactic use of newspapers and animation, ripping front page headlines to reveal twinkling space, including a French and New York newspaper edition.

Lialina is the author of Digital Folklore (2009) which examines the emergence of cultural kitsch as a crowdsourced artform:

“Technical innovations shape only a small part of computer and network culture. It doesn’t matter much who invented the microprocessor, the mouse, TCP/IP or the World Wide Web; nor does it matter what ideas were behind these inventions. What matters is who uses them. Only when users start to express themselves with these technical innovations do they truly become relevant to culture at large. […] In fact this evolving vernacular, created by users for users, is the most important, beautiful and misunderstood language of new media.

Giving Archives New Life

In early 2012, The New York Public Library launched The Stereogranimator, an online, open source, DIY GIF animation tool using the library’s vast collection of vintage stereographs. The web project, which has given a historic medium new life, was originally inspired by San Francisco writer and artist Joshua Heineman, who started creating his own moving images from Library stereograms as an art project for his blog,, in a project called Reaching for the Out of Reach.

GIF Credit: Joshua Heineman and NYPL

GIF Credit: Joshua Heineman and NYPL

As Heineman’s explains in an essay on the Huffington Post: “This kind of mutually beneficial relationship between archivist and user would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago.”

The whole notion of the GIF relies on the Open Source shareware of Creative Commons. That a public library would engage with this technology as an opportunity to expand audience interactivity marks a brilliant page-turn, opening public archives to innovative dialogues.

GIFs in this collection manage to evoke more of the story in archival history than a single 2D image. And motion is the key to unlocking potential narratives.

As Jennifer Schuessler notes in the New York Times, “The Stereogranimator also reflects how the library itself is changing, using digital technology to open its collections to patrons in new ways.”

Bookish Contributions

Other book-ish additions to the GIF economy include Amanda Nelson’s series “When Authors Attack Libraries: A GIF Response”, featuring Scarlett O’Hara dramatics over at BookRiot, a Pride and Prejudice-inspired Tumblr, and Author Nathan Bransford’s hilarious take on The Publishing Process in GIF Form. For the comic book geeks, there’s Kerry Callen’s Animated GIFs for Famous Comic Book Covers.

With the evolution of the GIF and the recent emergence of technologies like Vine, writers, publishers and mediamakers now how access to a plethora of tools for journalism, creative approaches to the synergistic merging of words and images. These kinds of 3D metaphors will continue to proliferate online like lyrics to pop songs you can’t get out of your head.

Interested in locating that perfect pithy GIF for your next blog post? there’s now a Google Search for that! And if you want to learn how to make GIFs, check out these DIY instructions from J.D. Biersdorfer: “Q&A Animating Your Own GIF.” Here’s to adding to the abundant stream of memes!

Recommended GIF Explorations

Rebecca Rosen, The AtlanticWire: “The Most Beautiful GIFs in (and of) Creation

Alex Williams, New York Times “Fresh From the Internet’s Attic

Kathleen Sweeney, a multimedia artist, writes on pop culture, tech, and viral media. The Founder/Editor of at The New School For Public Engagement, she was recently awarded a NEA fellowship in Social Media Arts at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.

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.