‘Art is the elimination of the unnecessary,’ Pablo Picasso said once, the day after he figured out how to use gifs in his WhatsApp group chat.
You’d have to be living under a rock to not realise we live in the age of visual communication. We use tens of billions of emojis on social platforms and in messaging apps every day. But surely the format that’s king/kween in the visual age is the gif. In September 2018, Giphy, the world’s most popular gif platform, reported 300 million users a day, and every social platform has incorporated gif search into their interface.
So now brands try to show that they get it, using high-end production methods to create their own gifs. But so often, it just ends up feeling like advertising because it’s too structured, too staged and too polished. And it’s created from the point of view of ‘what do we want to say about ourselves’, rather than ‘what do people want to use’.
Sure, you can craft gifs with brand messages baked into them – but that’s not necessarily great currency for someone looking to make a witty reply on Telegram.
The way Livity sees it, the power of gifs comes down to three main factors: their storytelling efficiency; their utility in constructing your social identity; whilst still making a universal emotional impact.
Gifs don’t just save you keyboard effort when words aren’t enough. Structurally, they are more powerful than a simple emoji or image because they contain more story, and subtler feeling. However light that story might be, it makes them a better vehicle for your jokes, your pain, excitement and a multitude more nuanced emotions.
A judiciously chosen gif also says something about you as a person: many are taken from another cultural property, like a TV show or movie. So what are your references? Are you talking mainstream language? Or are you making a statement about your super-discerning tastes?
But at the same time, you don’t need to know that it’s Shia LaBeouf or Orson Welles to know what a hand clapping gif means. You don’t need to know that it’s Drake or Lucille Ball to get what they’re trying to say. You intuitively understand a sarcastic thumbs-up, a Super Saiyan celebration or a bit of self-deprecating slapstick when you see it.
These factors have powered our Giphy channel for PlayStation to its first billion views in just under two and a half years (that works out at 1.19 million views a day).
The key to unlocking that potential has been to start from what gamers want to say, and when they want to say it. Then we figured out how to use the IP available to us – video games – to that purpose.
That’s how we started serving our core audience of next-generation gamers with visual currency: in a way that builds their identity but which is entertaining and accessible to everyone.
Maybe that will work for your audiences, too.
James Hogwood is the creative director of Livity