Vines and animated GIFs aren’t just for top 10 lists and witty comebacks. Artists and brands are taking short motion media to the next level to create, play and advertise. In this excerpt from the June issue of Print, Jason Tselentis explores the popularity of animated GIFs and begins to dig into why Vine has begun to be used by professionals along with casual users. Pick up the entire article.
Six Seconds or Less
Vine, a social media app for sharing six second looping videos, has grown in popularity since it debuted in January 2013. Nearing its second birthday in 2015, it continues to be a hotbed of arts and entertainment commentary, and is becoming a boon to designers and their clients.
It’s not just for casual users; rather, entertainers, videographers, artists and brands are all creating and sharing these six-second viral videos, documenting everything from pouring coffee or getting dressed to taking off in an airplane. Many Vine videos appear to be distant cousins of Eadweard Muybridge’s early “zoopraxiscopes,” which debuted in the late 1800s and featured isolated human figures and animals moving their limbs in rapid succession. The only difference is that Vine exists digitally, has sound and has become a popular vehicle for advertisers.
Out-of-context, six-second loops pulled from popular television shows, cartoons and movies have also made their way to Vine, doing something akin to what Tumblr has been up to since 2007: letting users cascade one curation after another for followers to observe, enjoy and reuse. It’s a place for comedians, musicians, entertainers and club-goers to post their video selfies, putting their experiences in the palm of your hand. But some videos are simply “just there,” as art for the sake of art—or art for the sake of Vine.
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In many ways, Vine is the Twitter of six-second videos, which is a fitting analogy. Chatter about Vine began as far back as 2012, when Twitter acquired the video-sharing startup months ahead of its app release. When the Vine app debuted, it integrated seamlessly with Twitter, and by March 2013, the Tribeca Film Festival had launched its #6SECFILMS Competition.
Anybody could become a “mini movie mogul” with a mobile phone, the Vine app and the ability to tell a story in six seconds or less. In April 2013, Vine catapulted to the top of Apple’s App Store as the No. 1 free program, solidifying its place among social media kings like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
When ABC used Vine to deliver a brief, looping preview for “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” in May 2013, advertisers began taking Vine seriously. And why not? The production costs are low and it has potential to get a brand in front of millions of people through its viral nature.
Perhaps feeling threatened by Vine’s short-video advertising potential, Instagram began taking steps in the summer of 2013 to offer video as well. This set the stage for what has become a heated competition between Vine and Instagram, as well as other social media platforms. Even though it’s not even two years old yet, Vine has managed to survive amid a morass of apps to become the place for big business to get a little bit more—and at six seconds, it’s indeed a very little bit more—of our attention.
Loopy for Animated GIFs
Before Vine, there were (and still are) animated GIFs. Jason Eppink, associate curator of digital media at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY, focuses on how communities online use and create media, including GIFs. Eppink identifies Yahoo!’s erstwhile GeoCities as one of the first places where people would create their own online identity, equipped with very short animated GIFs.
“GeoCities was the third-most visited website in 1999,” Eppink says. “It’s where we first learned how to represent ourselves online. No one had really tried anything like this before; it was a place of rapid experimentation.”
Around the same time that GeoCities rose to popularity and animated GIFs became part of its ecosystem, moving images were conjured up in the printed pages of the Harry Potter series, eventually making their way to the big screen. Artist Michael Fivis, who is part of the artist collective GIFRIENDS, is quick to point out that the Harry Potter movies were one of the first places that short, looped animations made their way to the general public via the Daily Prophet newspaper—along with its late edition, The Evening Prophet, and weekend edition, The Sunday Prophet.
The newspapers were a place to learn about all things related to wizardry, with moving imagery rendered in a simple—even primitive—stop-motion fashion, akin to what many of us can find on Vine today.
In the 2001 debut film and its subsequent sequels, the Prophet’s Vine-like animations captured the imagination of many artists and designers, including Fivis, who saw the newspaper’s animations as additive components to the film’s breaking news stories. Fan-made Harry Potter sites, as well as those created by the studio, offered up animated GIFs from the Prophet’s cover pages that have since become memes circulating throughout various corners of the internet.
By 2009, the Harry Potter film series was in full swing in theaters. Online, Yahoo! shut down GeoCities, and the other animated GIF haven, MySpace, had become second fiddle to the likes of Facebook. Even though animated GIF traffic and sharing had slowed down in certain spaces, online environments such as Typepad, Moveable Type, Blogger and WordPress grew in popularity, offering a space to cultivate one’s digital personality, where you could post or curate your own animated GIF collection.
Some pioneering digital entrepreneurs, such as Joshua Mauldin, set out to create spaces dedicated to nothing but animated GIFs. Mauldin’s Twitter bio reads, “Maker of iOS apps and websites. User experience, design and GIF lover,” so it came as no surprise that when GeoCities closed, it left an empty place in Mauldin’s heart, prompting him to create AwesomeGIFs as a way to fill the void. AwesomeGIFs was—and still is—a mix of low-fi and hi-fi GIFs (all sans sound). He’s since given birth to Happy GIFs and OMG CAT GIFs.
“AwesomeGIFs currently gets the most traffic, where we’ve had about 1.5 million unique visitors over the last year. Happy GIFs and OMG CAT GIFs are new and the traffic hasn’t stabilized. I can say that people come and click to see about 15 images when they do,” Mauldin says. Between the popularity of sites such as Mauldin’s, GIFs proliferating Tumblr and Google+, and now Vine, it seems as if we’re not too discriminating: We’ll take our video snacks low-def without sound (as in the case of animated GIFs) as well as hi-def and with sound (as in the case of Vine).
Since its debut, the animated GIF never really died out; it’s just moved to new homes over the years, as one online environment shuts down and another opens. But many credit Tumblr with helping it cross a generational divide, making it a mainstay during the technological evolution of online self-publishing. Founded in 2007, Tumblr lets users create sites to post content that they either create themselves or curate by pulling from other places on the internet, and many Tumblrs—even those produced over the past three to five years—are comprised solely of animated GIFs.
But whereas the GIF is created and posted without attribution, Vines are very much the opposite, according to Eppink: “The very ethos of the GIF is that they’re immediately released into the commons, but Vines are very ‘authored’ and ‘owned’ in nearly every sense of those words. This reflects the moment that the two formats were created in.
The web was a techno-utopian paradise when the GIF was first created, and the behavior that we evolved around GIFs reflects the early ethos of the web: sharing, learning, generosity. Now, the web is a place for wild speculation and get-rich-quick VCs [venture capitalists] and identity-making/performing, and that’s all pretty clearly reflected in Vine.”