Resolved: GIFs Are Actually Important

A Q&A with the makers of Pop, the new app that lets you talk in text, pictures, videos ... and GIFs
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Pop

There's something silly about GIFs. Perhaps it's the smell of the early, weird web. Or maybe it's in the nature of the loop itself. Or perhaps we think that such short clips cannot be meaningful, even if they seem devilishly good at transmitting meaning. 

Well, meet the makers of Pop, a new app that lets you talk with your friends in text, pictures, videos, and a vast library of GIFs from Giphy

Several years ago, Kara Oehler, Jesse Shapins, and James Burns co-founded Zeega, a platform for mixing media. Zeega is great, and we've used it around here, so I was excited to hear that they were working on a new mobile realization of their vision. That's Pop. 

Pop's action is simple: pick one visual, then pick a second. Pressing the screen let's you toggle between the two.  Shot, countershot, shot, countershot. It's a juxtaposition app!

When people respond to your posts, they choose one of your visuals and add a second. It is a clever mechanic and leads to hilarious results. 

But Oehler, Shapins, and Burns think that the fun reveals a deeper truth about the way we communicate on screens. 

"The meaning of a GIF, like all visual symbols, is built through common cultural understanding," they told me. "The reason a GIF of Jack Nicholson knocking on the door in The Shining says so much, so quickly, is because of the shared lexicon of popular culture. In this way, GIFs are elemental building blocks of the Internet’s language."

This is a full transcript of our interview, which was conducted on Google Docs, with only occasional help from images.

 

So what is Pop?

Pop is a new way to communicate visually. A Pop is two things put together – a video and a GIF – a photo and a video – pretty much any combination of media. To experience a Pop, you press and hold down on the image or video to reveal what’s underneath. The platform is built around creating, sharing, and replying to Pops.


 

What do you see as the essential mechanic of Pop? (I will confess that I think it’s The Reveal when you tap the setup image and get the punchline.)

We agree! Pop is all about The Reveal. Setup and punchline tend to be associated with comedy: crafting the perfect combination is what keeps Jon Stewart and the folks at SNL up all night. But if you think about it, setup and punchline is really about creating expectations and then defying them. It’s a fundamental component of narrative – which is why Pop is great for comedy, but also a tremendous vehicle for telling impactful stories. For example, @med has made a series of Pops about the conflicts today in places like Maidan Square in Kiev and Aleppo in Syria. When pressing down, you see the space transition from past to present.


This two-part structure, or montage, is also one of the most fundamental components of filmmaking. Montage is the idea that two images juxtaposed create a new “third meaning” that is not present in either of the images on their own. When film was a new medium in the 1920s, montage was the main obsession of filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. In Battleship Potempkin’s famous scene on the Odessa steps, Eisenstein didn’t just show the baby carriage falling down the stairs, he cut to a screaming mother’s face to show her reaction.


 

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about using Pop is that you can have a conversation with someone *through* their Pop. After they post a Pop, you can take one of their two components and build on it. This seems like the more creative version of something I’ve noticed teenagers doing on Twitter: they have like 30 reply conversations that are *just* GIFs. And it also reminds me of this thing Coudal Partners does with designers called Layer Tennis.

Honestly, we had no idea what this conversational part would be like when Pop was public. It’s been crazy. We’ve seen conversations amongst strangers that we never could have imagined.

If you hang out on Pop, you might get to know @iamzero, a hilarious guy from Arkansas. A few days ago, he sparked a conversation about drawing. In the first part of his Pop, he offered to draw anything people wanted — the second part of his Pop shows blank paper and a pencil.


People immediately responded.



 

@iamzero responded with his drawing, an incredible rendition of a dog-meets-unicorn.

 

When you make a Pop, you can draw from your own camera, or this whole database of GIFs. You guys have called that latter set of stuff “the visual history of our culture.” Can GIFs be that important?

Haha! While often silly, we do believe GIFs are actually really important. We share GIFs to express emotions. A GIF of Grumpy Cat conveys a mood in a way that is fundamentally different than with words. We’re not alone in obsessing over the unique powers of GIFs — in a few weeks, the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC is opening an entire exhibition devoted to the emotional potency of reaction GIFs.

It might sound crazy, but we often compare GIFs to the symbols that make up pictorial languages like Mandarin. A symbol in Mandarin represents a word, and GIFs often function in the same way. The meaning of a GIF, like all visual symbols, is built through common cultural understanding. The reason a GIF of Jack Nicholson knocking on the door in The Shining says so much, so quickly, is because of the shared lexicon of popular culture. In this way, GIFs are elemental building blocks of the Internet’s language.

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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