It was nearly five minutes into Tuesday night’s Republican primary debate and Fox Business Network co-host Maria Bartiromo had asked Ohio Gov. John Kasich to detail his plans to cut federal spending. After a long-winded answer in which Kasich referenced his website and said his father died of a black lung, Bartiromo looked up at him with a slight smile and said, “Did you want to name any specific steps, sir?”
Viewers at home may have simply smirked at Bartiromo’s tenacity. But to the Giphy editorial staff, that was a moment to memorialize. A staff member grabbed the clip, GIFed it and plopped its URL into a Google Doc for all its media partners to see.
As the eight Republican primary candidates offered quick introductions to the Fox Business Network and Wall Street Journal moderators in Milwaukee, a team of six Giphy employees sat glued to their personal live streams of the debate at the GIF-making company’s downtown New York loft office, recording the footage so as not to miss a beat. Fueled by pizza and beer, their main objective on Tuesday evening was to wring as many idiosyncratic moments as possible out of the nationally televised event. As soon as they could turn a thumbs-up, quarrel or gaffe on screen into a looping, moving image — a process that can take as little as two minutes — they’d paste a link to it in a document shared with about 25 major media outlets, ranging from the Huffington Post to Complex magazine to Marie Claire. And in seconds, those outlets snatched the GIFs and spread them to the world via their Twitter accounts and live blogs.
It’s a practiced routine for Giphy, the leading source of instant, live-event GIFs for the 2016 election cycle and so much more. Though the GIF format has been around since the late 1980s, it has only recently become a go-to medium for experiencing nationally televised events in short, entertaining spurts. And as the presidential primary elections unfold, Giphy has stepped up as a major peddler of political moments in GIF format. Nearly three years old, the small company has expanded from GIFing celebrity gatherings like the Grammys to major political moments like last night’s — often reaching millions of people online in a few hours and, for clips with staying power, sometimes tens of millions.
“There are all these great, shareable moments that are funny but also interesting,” editorial director Tyler Menzel told me from inside the company’s airy conference room, where a neon pizza sign hangs on the wall. “It’s all these different kinds of emotions that people want to own instantly for themselves.”
In an effort to bring more attention to its brand and products, the company began live-GIFing awards shows about two years ago, when there were only about 10 Giphy employees. Back then, as Menzel recalls, it was an “incredibly arduous process” that took about 10 minutes per GIF (an eternity on the Internet) and required Photoshop and screen sharing. Fast-forward to 2015, and Giphy has developed its own in-house tools that allow its team, and any of its users, to quickly spit out looping, moving images in a few minutes and then splash them on the Internet, where they will undoubtedly be Facebooked, Tumbled, Instagrammed, Tweeted and shared on Reddit. The company now keeps tabs on how many unique views and page views every GIF gets — a number that has helped it quantify its influence as it seeks to assert to its investors that it’s the most robust GIF source on the Internet.
“It’s almost like doing a magic trick,” Menzel said. “Like, how fast can we get this out?”
Most of the time, it’s pretty fast. Eighteen minutes into Tuesday’s debate, the shared document was already filled with 12 separate links and their corresponding embed codes, with titles ranging from “Trump side eye” to “Trump growl.” GIF-makers on duty shouted out these titles in a running commentary during the debate, a form of calling dibs that usually inspired laughter. By the end of the night, there were 37 GIFs in total.
Though Menzel’s team doesn’t have many specific guidelines for what constitutes a GIF, director of business development David Rosenberg says that the end goal isn’t just to capture a piece of information, but to evoke a feeling that people can repurpose for their own communication.
“For instance, I’m exasperated with my friend on the night of the debate,” Rosenberg said, offering a scenario. “How long is it going to take for Donald Trump to make an exasperated face, for Tyler to live-GIF it, for it to be put in our trending feed and for me to be like, ‘Why are you so annoying?’ But instead of saying the words, sending a GIF of Trump doing a face. That’s the gold standard: nothing to do with politics.”
It’s natural that Giphy would appeal to a younger, social-media-savvy demographic that wants to use in-the-moment figures to express its own emotions. According to the Pew Internet Project, for the last 10 years, the biggest demographic for social networking has been 18- to 29-year-olds. But critics like Politico’s Nicholas Carr have argued against fragmented content like GIFs, warning that “social media favors the bitty over the meaty, the cutting over the considered.”
Though quick-hit mediums may seem less thorough, that may not necessarily mean they’re any worse than what’s currently out there. Travis Rich, who created a website to sort GIFs by emotion last year with his colleague Kevin Hu (which drew over 3 billion participants), doesn’t see much of a difference between a heavily circulated Donald Trump GIF and the way traditional media packages a debate performance.
“With any medium that’s short, it’s going to take a bunch of context and throw it out,” Rich said. “GIFs are no worse than headlines in newspapers and magazines.” He adds that the “higher dimensionality” of a GIF — the human element captured in a few vivid frames — actually means “you’ll get more data from it.”
Rosenberg says Giphy is by no means attempting to be a “Library of Congress of GIFs” or to substitute real, nuanced understanding with moving images. But, at the very least, he says, live-GIFing an important event might bring you up to speed on something you’d otherwise know nothing about.
“If you wanted to know about [the] Benghazi [hearing], you could read the A1 story in the New York Times about it,” he said. “Or you can look at that one GIF of Hillary scratching her head with a little smile, and you would know broadly that she felt herself the smartest person in the room, that it was a little bit belittling, that she was frustrated — but knew that she had won. It’s not the same as having a holistic understanding of the politics of this country, but if you want to know what happened at that Benghazi hearing, just look at that GIF.”