The Tech Magic Behind the Rubbable GIF

Buzzfeed has bestowed a new kind of GIF upon the Internet that they claim puts the site "at the very top of the GIF game." Is this new technology really an evolution? 

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They call it the Rubbable GIF because unlike a normal GIF, Buzzfeed beckons Internetters to "Rub me!" By clicking and dragging (or tapping and dragging, on a phone) viewers can move the GIF at their own pace. Head here to get rubbing. We're told by Buzzfeed's Managing Editor Scott Lamb that it's even more fun on a fancy phone. So, try that, too. This is not a standard GIF. It's interactive!

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The most disconcerting thing about these creations, though, is that the average Internet-Joe can't make them. GIFs were kind of the democratizing animation of the Internet. With either PhotoShop, or even simpler,, any Internet literate can make one. It took the BuzzFeed developer team three weeks to figure "rubbing" out. It's not part of the GIF making process, but a special feature built into the web browser, as Lamb explained to The Atlantic Wire: "The rubbable-ness happens when the .gifs are loaded in a web browser. Our genius developer, Andy Yaco-Mink, put together some code that lets you interact with .gif, using Ajax and an element in HTML 5 called Canvas. It's the code on the webpage that makes them rubbable, not the way the .gifs are made." So, BuzzFeed writers and editors just click a button in their blog content management system and the GIF gets did. It's easy enough for the BuzzFeed people, but you can't make one. 

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Maybe the technological innovation and ensuing user experience is worth giving up that sense of GIF-democracy? To be sure, the technology makes GIFs more interactive. That's exactly the point, Lamb argues. "The thing we were thinking about is really about making content on the social web. When people have an emotional connection, they tend to share it more," he told The Atlantic Wire over the phone. "Being able to rub your phone and make Ryan Gosling dance around, you have formed some sort of connection." Yes, rubbing Ryan Gosling is quite nice. There's another thing, too: The new GIF also increases utility, Lamb argues. Getting sensual with the GIF will not only make us "like" the post, but will allow us to see details we might otherwise miss. "There is a lot of great potential of people being able to replay certain moments and scroll back and forth in time and slow them down," he continued. We don't disagree. Take all that Olympics GIF coverage, for example. Imagine rubbing through Gabby Douglas's floor routine, stopping at each twist and flip. 

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But, even if they can improve sports coverage, will these GIFs really be used like that? Take a look at BuzzFeed's introductory offerings. We have Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan waving, Hillary Clinton dancing, and of course, Ryan Gosling waving. That's not utility, it's novelty, as The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal put it on Twitter. "People won't really use this all that much," he tweeted. Alas, rubbing Gosling is fun for a few seconds, but it doesn't do much for us after that. It's just there to be cute. 

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Update 2:51 p.m.: BuzzFeed doesn't plan on keeping this technology to itself, it seems. "If your developers, or any developers, want help building this in, they should ask @yacomink [Yaco-Mink, the developer who created the technology]," BuzzFeed's Ben Smith tweeted at me.