GIF me a break: How will this file format help journalists tell stories?

jkidd@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 18, 2013 

In the days when it took a minute or two to download a 50-kilobyte photo, dial-up was the norm and you impressed your friends with a flip phone that could store 100 numbers, GIF animation was out there with Ally McBeal, dancing on the Internet's cutting edge.

And though bandwidth expansion and high-definition video have rendered GIFs technologically obsolete, pop culture has rendered them trendy once more -- as with the nostalgia evoked by vinyl records and claymation holiday specials.

Credit social/blogging service Tumblr for keeping the GIF alive long enough to be rediscovered. Now, the file format and the social-media platform are exploding in tandem, and there are plenty of ways for you to enjoy the fun. In fact, if you don't have a smartphone or just want to build your GIF animations long hand, you can do it in PhotoShop.

But for lazy folks like me, there are a plethora of apps.

I've got GifBoom loaded on my iPhone, and the app also is available for Android devices. In addition to making GIFs, it allows you to view, Pinterest-style, the work of others, although I found that work consists mainly of rather pointless loops of girls slurping noodles and Valentines from love-lorn teenage boys. (Cinemagram, another free app I recently downloaded, is slightly more high-brow -- slightly -- and offers some wicked-cool effects. However, it's not at all clear how one embeds their creations in a blog post like this.)

One of the hottest free apps in the iTunes Store right now is Vine, which doesn't exactly produce GIFs but replicates the aesthetic by allowing the user to loop up to six seconds of video. The clips can be posted to Vine's social network or linked to Twitter, as the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune described in a Feb. 12 article. (Beware if you intend to check out this app; apparently the early-adopters were, ahem, pornographic in their offerings.)

Vine, and apps like it, have been the subject of much conversation in news-media circles lately, but the chatter leaves me scratching my head. Of what benefit are GIFs to a journalist, beside producing goofy, little features like this?:

<div><a href='http://gifboom.com/x/b7a34b08' style='color:transparent'><img>

http://gifboom.com/x/b7a34b08

I spent my weekend using my family as guinea pigs and turned Mom into a speed readers.

<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://cinemagr.am/show/122084734" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

But what, pray tell, does this have to do with journalism? Well, one industry article demonstrated the possibilities with this tweet.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>WATCH: Video of the <a href="https://twitter.com/search/%23dolphin">#dolphin</a> trapped inside the <a href="https://twitter.com/search/%23Gowanus">#Gowanus</a> Canal from earlier today as it struggles in the water. <a href="http://t.co/8N6bdoQJ" title="http://bit.ly/WYYmKa">bit.ly/WYYmKa</a></p>&mdash; NBC New York (@NBCNewYork) <a href="https://twitter.com/NBCNewYork/status/294916555047845888">January 25, 2013</a></blockquote>

<script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

But I'm still not sold.

The video now provided at that link on Twitter is compelling, but it originally led to a looping video from Vine, which did little to advance the viewer's understanding of the news, particularly if you didn't already understand the basic storyline. Besides, it's not as if there weren't already tools to help you get video to Twitter (and with no time restrictions, no less.)

Of course, this criticism comes from someone who thought Twitter was pointless, too, when the social-media juggernaut was in its infancy. Now, Twitter is seamlessly integrated into our reporting workflow, and "hastag" is as much a part of our newsroom lexicon as "slug," "lead" or "byline."

Nonetheless, it is difficult to see the news value in rendering the mayor in a Wigglegram. And although there is an entire area of Tumblr, GIFhound, supposedly devoted to news-oriented GIFs, I'm still a hard sell. None of it looked very newsy to me.

I imagine there are some instances in which a GIF tells a story in a way neither a photo nor video could capture. Sports, in particular, seems given to such treatment. After all, what Gamecock fan hasn't (mis)spent a half hour or so admiring Jadaveon Clowney's jaw-dropping tackle in the Outback Bowl?

<a href="http://imgur.com/sJcNY"><img src="http://i.imgur.com/sJcNY.gif" alt="" title="Hosted by imgur.com" /></a>

But in all seriousness, I suspect widespread use of GIFs in news reporting will raise all sorts of questions those made giddy by retro features have not anticipated.

For instance, does the goofy, mocking treatment that seems almost inherent to the form leave us open to those who would assert a GIF casts them in an unfair and unflattering right? Is looping the sort of effect we would never tolerate in traditional photojournalism, like vignetting or airbrushing a picture? Is a GIF created from a video snippet or photo we do not own an original work protected by its own copyright, or does it constitute a copyright infringement?

These are questions the industry will broach if GIFs are to find lasting and widespread use in news-gathering.

First, however, a more pertinent question: Is this just a fad?

Until that question is answered, I'll entertain myself horsing around with my nephew as he gets in his workouts.

<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://cinemagr.am/show/122104031" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

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