GIF portrait of Ari Spool. Courtesy of GIPHY.
GIF portrait of Dani Newman. Courtesy of GIPHY.
There are few contemporary artists who can say that their work has been viewed over 100 million times. But for creatives like Denyse Mitterhofer, Julie Winegard, Libby VanderPloeg, and G1ft3d, behemoth view counts are the new normal. How? All have taken up the GIF as their preferred artistic medium.
“Libby’s ‘Shimmy if You’re With Her’ GIF was a huge viral hit,” explains Ari Spool, from her desk in the new Meatpacking District offices of GIPHY, the three-year-old tech company that’s become the preeminent search engine, aggregator, and creation tool for all things GIF. Presently, GIPHY serves more than 1 billion GIFs a day, which are seen by 100 million-plus daily active users. We’re gazing into Spool’s laptop at Shimmy if You’re With Her, which shows nine people shimmying à la Hillary Clinton’s spontaneous—and now storied—2016 U.S. Presidential debate boogie. “As of now, this GIF alone has gotten 3 million views,” says Spool of illustrator VanderPloeg’s animation. “And that’s really because she uploaded it to GIPHY.”
GIF by Julie Winegard. Courtesy of GIPHY.
GIF by Libby VanderPloeg. Courtesy of GIPHY.
Spool is GIPHY’s Community Curator and a passionate advocate for the creation and proliferation of GIF art, both online and beyond. Since she landed at GIPHY in May 2016, she’s been able to use the snowballing company’s deep database of GIFs, devoted community, and strategic partnerships with messaging services like iMessage, Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, and more to do just that—promote GIFs made by artists. If, for instance, during the November elections, you were keen to playfully share your political leanings with your newest object of affection on Bumble, you could do so by using sending the “Shimmy” GIF (full disclosure: this writer did just that), which you’d discover by searching for tags like #shimmy, #hillaryclinton, and #madampresident on the messaging portion of the dating app.
It’s Spool’s job, along with her colleague Dani Newman, GIPHY’s Community Director, to make sure GIF artworks like VanderPloeg’s rise to the top of those searches. In this way, the two curators ensure that creative, original interpretations of trending terms can be found amongst the flood of other GIFs hosted on the platform. “A big part of our job is to sort GIFs as they are uploaded by users, then optimize them. That way, we make sure tags are getting enough cool content,” Spool explains. “So, if you’re the type of person who wants to send something weird when you say ‘hey’ on Tinder, that’s available to you.”
GIF by LAZY MOM. Courtesy of GIPHY.
GIF by LAZY MOM and EyeBodega. Courtesy of GIPHY.
Spool and Newman are responsible for GIPHY’s “Artists” vertical, which aggregates the weird, wonderful, and often mind-melting GIF work of over 1,100 artists, currently hand-picked by the two curators. When Spool and I stop by Newman’s desk during my visit to GIPHY’s HQ, she’s sifting through the over two million GIPHY user account pages, on the hunt for new artists to add to their curated area of the site. So what makes a GIF art?
“Well, we ask a lot of questions when we’re looking for new artists,” Spool says, as we peer over Newman’s shoulder, where a conga line of images gyrate, sparkle, and flash onscreen. “Things like: ‘Did they make the content of the GIF themselves?,’ ‘Do they make a lot of them?,’ and if they do, ‘Is their work of a high quality?” She elaborates: “You can’t just be an illustrator and get this classification. It’s style agnostic, but it’s not quality agnostic.” And for Spool and Newman, quality can mean several different things.
GIF by Sam Cannon. Courtesy of GIPHY.
GIF by Sam Cannon. Courtesy of GIPHY.
As Spool goes on to explain, they’re searching for GIFs that resonate with a contemporary audience (primarily millennials), engage with timely subjects (like the U.S. election), explore new coding methods and technologies (like Cinema 4D), and—perhaps most importantly—emote. “It might be corny to say, but the GIFs we designate as art really need to tell a story, express an idea or emotion, or present a visual world. You don’t have to be a C4D master, but you do have to put in some effort.”
Spool and Newman add around 20 new artists to GIPHY’s catalogue each week. What happens afterwards? “We try to serve them to as many eyeballs as possible,” says Spool, “and we do it in a few different ways.” The curators place artist-created GIFs on GIPHY’s homepage or in top rungs of search results, where they’ll be more readily discovered by users on iMessage, Facebook, Twitter, or Slack. They also advise creators on ways in which they can more successfully tag their GIFs, in order to propel them into more searches. “A lot of artists have a tendency to tag their work with words like ‘collage’ or ‘surreal,’ but those aren’t necessarily terms people are searching for when they’re sending a GIF,” Spool explains. “They are, however, looking for ‘creepy.’” Armed with GIF-use expertise, Spool and Newman can apply a heavily-searched tag to a piece of GIF art and, in step, significantly increase that work’s exposure.
GIF by Andrew Benson. Courtesy of GIPHY.
GIF by Andrew Benson. Courtesy of GIPHY.
But Spool and Newman also know that artists can’t live on exposure alone. “They certainly can’t pay their landlords with it, so we’re hoping to support them more holistically,” says Spool, as she loads a page showing Los Angeles-based artist and animator Andrew Benson’s GIF art. Benson is one of the 75 artists who GIPHY has commissioned—and paid—to make work in the last year. The effort is part of a new venture conceived by Spool and Newman called GIPHY Arts, which will expand on the artist vertical they created by putting money behind special projects by artists and the distribution methods that will serve their work to more people. “More than just a vertical where artists’ work is hosted and can be discovered, we’re also out to expand what art online can be. And we realize that in order to do that, we also have to establish an economy,” says Spool.
Last year, when Spool reached out to Benson, who she discovered by searching through GIPHY’s user profiles, she suggested that he combine his coding chops with his interest in GIF animation. The result was GIPHY’s first user-designed GIF creation tool: Boopy Club, a canvas that animates and datamoshes as you draw. GIPHY commissioned Benson to forge four GIFs using Boopy, for which he was paid $500 a pop, GIPHY’s going rate. It turned out to be a roaring hit with GIPHY’s community, and since its launch over 19,000 GIFs have been created using the technology.
GIF by Alexandre louvenaz. Courtesy of GIPHY.
In 2016, Spool and Newman also realized a physical exhibition of GIF art called Loop Dreams. With the help of the New Museum’s Rhizome, it corralled physical GIF commissions—in the form of projections, lenticulars, digital sculptures, and more—from 25 artists. They also commissioned 10 artists to cook up GIFs for a special project with Tinder. Spool cues up one of the spoils of the project: a wacky 3-D animation from the French artist Alexandre Louvenaz, showing a small, cute creature emerging from a flower, then being scooped up by a much larger, winged being.
“If you get this GIF on Tinder, you know what you’re getting into,” Spool laughs. “That’s pretty much the point of GIFs—they offer a new, more nuanced way of speaking. And that’s we’re trying to expand.” This year, GIPHY plans to not only significantly increase the number of artists represented on the site, but also grow the number and scope of artworks, creation tools, and technologies made by artists who they support. “If we support artists, we think we can do it—expand the possibilities of the GIF and, really, of language too,” says Spool, as we ogle the artist specialnothing’s GIPHY page. On it, 43 stop-motion GIFs wiggle back and forth, waiting to be disseminated by those for whom words, and even emojis, sometimes aren’t quite enough.