It’s like a GIF, but with audio – Some thoughts on a changing definition of GIFs

The podcast and radio program „This American Life“ introduced a feature to select and share short clips from their shows. This creates a combination of the selected audio and a text animation of the corresponding transcript excerpt in a video file.

This would be interesting enough in itself, when you take into account how desperately radio stations think about how to form their content into handy portions that are easy to share and hopefully go viral. But in the end, this is still a blog about GIFs that you are reading now. So, what’s this all about?

Actually, it is just a tiny observation, but it made me think. The announcement of the new feature includes one rather odd sentence (the first part of the quote is just for context):

[…]turn your favorite podcast moments into videos that you can post to social media. It’s kind of like making a gif, but for audio. []

Yes. Yes, videos are somehow like GIFs, but with audio. But of course this promising perception has another layer of meaning. The term GIF is not limited to .gif-files any more. For a longer time now we can observe a shift from this technical definition to a broader cultural understanding of what GIFs are. I have linked to several articles about that in the past and written about it myself. „GIF“ has become a generic term for any short piece of moving image that is shared on the web, that may or may not include audio. Since the rise of WebM, GIFV and the like, the file format itself is less and less relevant, as users rather care for the animated content.

Back to the Podcast-GIF-thingy. This American Life uses the word „GIF“ in its broader understanding to describe a new product. But they mention it only by the way. Wired, however, decided to report about that with the headline „This American Life Is Making Podcasts as Shareable as GIFs

Okay, let’s not get too excited here. It is only a metaphor and of course GIFs are „shareable“, duh! Well, have a look back to, lets say, 2012. GIFs just became quiet popular again and seemed to be all over the place. But the were not that shareable. It just happened during the last years that social media sites and apps included GIF support, leading to the current situation where GIFs are even more all over the place than a few years before.

What I want to illustrate with all this is: Our understanding of GIFs is developing constantly. And as an observer of GIF culture I want to point out remarkable instances and turning points of this development. The case we just inspected is a very demonstrative example of a progress that already is in effect for some time and will continue even further. Have a look at designated GIF-sections on Reddit or 4chan, where WebMs are shared because they include audio, albeit being a different file format. Or at GIF-Art, where a very broad definition of GIFs may apply, as stated in this article I recently mentioned in the last link list.

From the current point of view it seems that the usual definition of GIFs nowadays is merely linked to the file format, but to its appearance and appropriation. This might seem obvious now, but in the 90s the technical aspects have been far more important, especially in contrast to PNG.


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