We have become a nation of GIFs.
But there’s plenty of room for improvement — if not in style, at least in efficiency. That’s an issue that the team at Zeega is trying to work on these days, and they think they’ve got an answer.
“It’s a uniquely emotional format,” said Jesse Shapins, co-founder of Zeega. “I think it’s one of the reasons they are so popular. They’re like condensed emoticons.” (Or, as in the GIF above, a way to indicate that rotund Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder might not enjoy salads.)
Condensed emoticons, or perhaps shrunken movies. The reason GIFs have seen a resurgence has as much to do with their age as their expressive qualities — the format’s been around since the 1980s, and it’s supported in almost every web browser without the need for an external plugin like Flash. But the problem with GIFs is a technical one too: the files can be huge, which can be a big problem, particularly on underpowered mobile devices.
So the team at Zeega has created what they hope will be a more efficient format for short animated images: the ZGA. (Zeega is itself named for Soviet film pioneer Dziga Vertov, so the name has some resonance beyond startup-promotion.) An animated GIF is, in essence, a stack of individual still GIFs all stored in the same file. But GIF as a file format doesn’t compress well, so combining all those GIFs can stack up quickly.
You can see a few ZGAs — starring Johnny Manziel, Homer Simpson, a psychedelic fish, and more — on Zeega’s website. Here’s how Shapins described it on Medium (where, for technical reasons, you can’t see the ZGAs actually, um, zig-zag?):
Zeega’s been focused on the visual world since Shapins and his cofounders launched as part of the Knight News Challenge in 2011. The tools created by the company allow anyone, journalists or individual storytellers, the ability to create short multimedia stories through material culled from the web. A video, Flickr images, Soundcloud audio files, GIFs — it’s all fair game. The reason they got interested in finding a better file format was feedback from Zeega users having trouble looking at GIFs on their phones, Shapins said. As mobile takes a greater and greater share of all online attention, a file format that can be laggy or crashy on your phone becomes even more of a problem. “In terms of mobile speed is critical, so getting down the data throughput is important. But the end experience has to be comparable” to a regular GIF, Shapins told me.
But while all GIFs can be rubbable, not all of them will (look for a “Make rubbable” button). While Rubbing a GIF is not just for special occasions, the editors typically keep them out of serious or sensitive stories. Alice DuBois, BuzzFeed product lead for editorial tools said this over email:
Our awesome dev team built this revolutionary rubbable GIF technology in house so we wanted to roll out this technology for any GIF on the site. Rubbable GIFs work best when they show a specific action or gesture that you want to slow down and look at again and again, like this cute kid berating his dad for dropping a foul ball. Rubbable GIFs could be a inappropriate for sensitive subjects, so the feature is disabled in those posts.
Building a better GIF is an ambitious idea, but browser and platform support loom as big barriers to massive uptake. What places like Zeega and BuzzFeed are trying to do is supplement the GIF experience in ways useful in the controlled environments of their own platforms. That’s a noble goal — but the GIF, short, spastic and imperfect, looks set to endure for some time longer.