Fn 3: How GIFs Became Embedded in Our Culture

"It's a reaction! It's a thing that articulates this feeling I have without having to write it out." — Kenyatta Cheese

Ah, the humble animated GIF. We use them on social media or in text messages as a way to signify a reaction, tell a story, or just to have a laugh. Some are even making animated GIFs of entire movies!

It's not all fun and games though — organizations and media companies are cracking down on animated GIF usage, with some going as far as issuing copyright notices against animated GIF creators. Even the IOC, the governing body of the Olympic Games, banned news organizations from creating animated GIFs of sports coverage from the Rio 2016 Summer Games. Are animated GIF creators protected under fair use, or are these organizations not being fair?

This week on Function, we unpack this issue with Kenyatta Cheese and T. Kyle MacMahon. Kenyatta, a long-time Internet historian and co-creator of Know Your Meme, talks about the history of the GIF format and how animated GIFs are a fundamental part of memes and Internet culture as a whole. Later, we talk to T. Kyle about his website RealityTVGIFs, his thoughts on how animated GIFs have influenced modern television, and why these images aren't going away any time soon.


GIFs Referenced in the Episode

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Big thanks to Microsoft Azure for supporting the first season of Function.

Function | About


Anil Dash: Hi, welcome to Function. I'm Anil Dash. This week on Function, it's a pretty special episode for me because we're going to dig into my very favorite image format in the whole world, which is GIFs. Now, I'm one of those folks who grew up online, but online back then was really before the Web. There were these old dial-up services. That's how you would connect. They were called like CompuServe or America Online. Old timers will remember them. And on of the wild things about CompuServe if you were online back in the '80s, was you could see these new formats popping up, and one of them invented at CompuServe was called the Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF, and it was like your eyes had opened for the first time because there were tricks that these images could do that I'd never seen before. They had transparent parts, and then the wildest thing of all...they started to move.

We didn't have YouTube. We didn't have video online. There was not a lot of motion happening on the Internet — or the proto Internet at that point. So to be able to see a moving image seemed shocking. I really never lost that excitement or that enthusiasm for GIFs that I had as a teenager. All these years later, it's still just as exciting to me every time I see somebody sharing a really great GIF. I think, "Man, this is what the Internet was made for."

These days, GIFs aren't just for geeks online. They're accessible to everybody. They're super simple, they work on your phone, they tap into pop culture feelings, and there's even websites like GIPHY that are almost like a database where you can look up any GIF you want by the feeling you're trying to express. The funny thing is most GIFs come from TV shows or movies or music videos, and while YouTube has the copyright caps all over it, GIFs are still the Wild West. We don't even really know how we get away with using them.

Later we're going to hear from T. Kyle MacMahon. He's the lead digital and social producer from Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen.

T. Kyle is responsible for a lot of the memes you see in use on the Internet every day, like the Nene Leakes "I Am Rich" GIF, one of the classics of the genre.

But first, we gotta ask: how did GIFs become so embedded in Internet culture? I talked to Kenyatta Cheese who you might call an Internet culture enthusiast. He's the CEO and co-founder of Everybody At Once, which is an agency that specializes in audience development and social media strategy. But he's also the co-creator and founder of knowyourmeme.com, which is a database of basically every meme the Internet has ever seen.

Kenyatta and I took a deep dive into the history and culture of GIFs and the copyright rules that basically let us get away with using them everywhere.

"All of a sudden, once we figured out and once the community had figured out a way to make a format useful and to find value in it, you had folks coming back in and trying to say, 'Okay, now that you figured out that there's something here, I'm gonna shut you down.'" -- Kenyatta Cheese

AD: Kenyatta Cheese, thank you for joining us on Function. There's so many questions I have for you, but we're going to start with the most important one which is...what is the first time you remember seeing a GIF in your life?

Kenyatta Cheese: First time seeing a GIF, my gosh...it was probably an under construction looping GIF on a GeoCities or an Angelfire page. Probably mid to late '90s. The first time, and that's probably the first time I saw the actual format, the first time where I saw it and understood that there was a cultural relevance to it was probably Dancing Baby. Do you remember?

AD: Oh right, yeah, the little animated baby from Ally McBeal.


KC: Somebody takes it, makes a GIF of it, and it starts spreading as one of the first GIF virals. All of a sudden we saw this thing that was sent to everybody via broadcast show up in this other medium, on this other screen in a way that we could control the passing along of that thing and that was kind of incredible. When you asked the question first GIF, I think there's probably a few different versions of that, right?

AD: Right. There's the format and then there is its use in culture. GIF is a format of an image; it's a way to save an image file on your computer. Some history: it started on CompuServe, an early dial up service that people used to access the proto-Internet in the '80s and later. In 1987, the graphics interchange format GIF87 is created, and that's sort of the first version. And then something interesting happens. They revised the format; they make an update to the format:, GIF89a. Talk about what that means and what happened there.

KC: One of the fascinating things about the evolution of GIF was we first saw that it started off with a very limited color palette. It was a spec for doing very, very lightweight animations. With the switch to 89a, you could do a little more. I believe the color palette increased to 256 colors, I think it is?

AD: Wow. That's right. Luxurious. That's HD.

KC: It's amazing how many colors you can fit in there. It's crazy! At about the same time, we saw the file format adopted on Netscape browsers. I think it was like probably Navigator 2.0 or something.

AD: Yeah, that's like 1992 or so 1993, yeah.

KC: All of a sudden, people who were making these very static pages, there's a time that some of us remember when the Web was nothing but text. And being able to add a GIF, being able to add one of these images didn't even have to be animated. The idea that I could actually add a 256-color limited version of some photo I took, scan it, and upload it to my page felt incredible.

AD: So now we have this evolution where there's this format, this technical format for storing files there. We're able to do animation. We're able to see this motion happen. The Web seems to be the thing for which it was born, even though it was created before the Web and it takes off. Then, as you said it, becomes shorthand for expressing these feelings, these emotions. But it can do lots of interesting things. One of the things we see and sort of you can talk about this with your work, is capturing parts of a movie, a show, a TV show, an episode of what's going on, and disseminating maybe at least one of the feelings or emotions from it. How does that happen?

KC: Yeah. That's probably I think the first TV GIFs I ever saw were for, I think they were maybe for Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I think it was people doing, essentially posting recaps of their favorite moments in newsgroups. Newsgroups were this separate space, separate from the Web where we'd all sort of meet and have...it's Reddit, pre-Reddit.

AD: So early chat discussions online.

KC: Yeah. One way that you would have a discussion is be able to talk about TV shows, maybe you talk about the episode. Being able to post what you thought was the seminal moment from that video in the form of a small looping GIF that just sort of captured that, the one reaction from Buffy, or a swing of an ax or whatever it was, it gave people a point of reference.

AD: Because in this era, especially, this is before YouTube or anything, that putting up a video was really hard.

KC: Oh, it was so hard! In fact, you have to remember, there's a time where video wasn't standardized and there were so many competing formats that were all very proprietary that it wasn't accessible to everybody. Whereas if you knew HTML and you had a browser and you had a source of GIFs, you could insert one of these, you could insert one of these animations into your web page or however it is that you're trying to connect to an audience.

AD: So it worked everywhere, and at the time the standard for video was downloading RealPlayer or Windows Media Player or QuickTime and wait 20 minutes while something downloads. Meanwhile, the GIF was just already there, in the browser.

KC: Not only was it already there, it didn't require you to have to learn and license a proprietary format for being able to create animated work and disseminate it via the Internet. It's one of the things that I find fascinating about what I see as a sort of battle. It wasn't a real one, but in my head I see a battle between the evolution of GIF and the evolution of Flash, where Flash has the backing of Adobe and you have everybody who maybe once made CD-ROMs because you were a content producer or you were a digital content producer and all of a sudden you're having to adjust to the Internet. And so you have this class of extremely talented, highly skilled people who are essentially the gatekeepers to being able to put out work in this format.

AD: Context for people who don't know: in the '90s and early 2000s, Flash was what they called a plugin. It was something that connected to your web browser and could show initially just animations and illustrations, and later on it could do full video streaming, or it probably helped enable YouTube to exist in the first place and did a lot of those things. It killed off the old formats of RealPlayer and Windows Media Player, and at the time people thought this would be ascendant. This would be what wins everywhere. And then the humble GIF comes along.

KC: And it comes along because all of a sudden these dark corners of the Internet, forums and newsgroups and GeoCities and Angelfire pages of its time, these were the places where if you had a little bit of knowledge, where you knew how to build a web page and you had space available to you, you were just going to scrap and scrape and find whatever you can in order to make this page feel more alive abd feel more like you.

AD: This format had a lot of interesting traits. It could also do transparency, so you can make like custom shapes. The early web and the first web browsers came out like 1990 or so. You have the early versions that would lead to Netscape coming out in '92, '93. Netscape comes out in '95. That couple of years there's a huge number of advancements in how you show these images. Can they be transparent? Can they start to animate? And it's almost taken for granted as a way of expressing yourself. You talked about "under construction" being one of the first GIFs that you saw. Tell me about what an under construction GIF was on the early web.

KC: I remember my first web page where I had gone and done my first little searches on things like Gopher and another place to find all these sort of interesting, and for me rare, texts...probably a bunch of stuff about activism and anime and other things I was interested in at the time, and threw them together on a page of links and I realized that, well, people are going to come to this page and they're going to click on these things, but I'm always going to add stuff to it, so I needed to make sure that I can indicate to people that my page is going to be updated soon. "Under construction" became a way to be able to say, "hey, this is my way of saying we're going to update this regularly so always come back."

AD: It's in progress.

KC: Yeah.

AD: And it looks like a little yellow road sign of the person digging, but it can move.

KC: Oh, that's good. I didn't have that one. Mine, I think, was the long bar with that red "under construction" with like...

AD: So with the siren lights on that you see around a construction site?

KC: Oh, I couldn't find a good siren light one, so I did the just sort of yellow and black alternating color blocks.

AD: Okay, but enough to warrant people content is coming.

KC: You're right.

AD: Be careful. Part of the reason that I ask you that, and to get a little bit into your background for folks that don't know you there...one of the places I want to start with is Know Your Meme. Talk to me about Know Your Meme and your connection to it.

KC: A bunch of years back, I was working at a video blog called Rocketboom where we were just sort of documenting things that were happening in our culture all the time, which meant that we just basically lurked the Internet. We just kind of sort of watched what was happening and then kind of picked out moments what we thought were interesting. One of the things that we saw that was really fascinating was that all of a sudden there was all of this Internet culture, memes in particular, image macros, GIFs that were being passed around, that were being taken and reformatted and then put onto things like Adult Swim and shown on television without any attribution.

AD: So they're crossing over from Internet nerd culture into mainstream culture but people didn't really know how or why?

KC: And people didn't know who had actually made it. These communities had built this amazing culture. They were sort of often a background, while somebody else who figured out how to exploit it had to kind of put it out there. We decided that we would start a meme database. We decided we would start documenting the spread of memes in order to help tell their story.

AD: That seems like something people could think of now, but at the point when you're doing this, taking memes seriously enough to be academic about them and catalog them in a database had to seem absurd...radical...what?

KC: Oh completely absurd, completely absurd. Not a lot of people were taking it seriously even though there were a bunch of serious business being built around them. For us, we realized, "wow, no one's going to take this seriously unless we figure out a way to do that." So we bought lab coats and we made videos where we just put the lab coat on and then we explained the history of the meme by looking at, well, is there a social theory that kind of lends itself to this.

Kenyatta Cheese: This report by all means should've been forgettable if it weren't for one man, Bubb Rubb.

Reporter: Tell me about the whistles.

Bubb Rubb: The whistles go woooooooooo.

KC: The whistles, they go woo. [...] To understand Bubb Rubb and his quick wit and affable personality, you have to understand the culture in which Bubb Rubb exists. You have to understand hyphy.

Reporter: Part of the subgenre of Bay Area hip-hop...

KC: Back then the APIs, the programming interfaces that allowed us to actually pull data and actually look at where something spread and how it spread, that stuff used to be free, right?

AD: And you could just access it.

KC: You could just access it and be able to see, oh, actually it spread here first, and then it seems to have jumped over to this other site, and all of a sudden, all of a sudden this thing that maybe started off in a place like 4chan or Digg or wherever else, shows up on your parents' wall on Facebook.

So mapping that felt very important. I think now we see the ways that all of sudden everything that has been studied around funny cat pictures actually applies to things like civil society.

AD: Right, global politics is shaped by memes.

You have this early community and collaborators where you start to document culture, and it's all kinds of memes. You had static images, you had videos, you had early viral clips pre-YouTube or when you YouTube started to take off. But at heart of this thing is GIFs. Talk to me about the role that GIFs have in meme culture.

KC: There is this half-way point between a full blown video and a still image macro. If the image macro is "this is a photo of a cat, this is a photo of a screenshot from a game, this is a thing that I recognize and I'm going to throw some text over it in order to try to convey meaning," being able to do that in a GIF in this one little loop of a gesture that somebody is making or maybe it's a really cute animal, those things are interesting because they tend to spread across cultures faster.

AD: And not as textual, not as literal.

KC: Yeah. It's easier to recognize a human emotion. You can recognize a facial expression much easier than you can maybe read text in another language that you don't understand. GIFs had this sort of lateral spread across continents and across cultures and across languages that was harder for image macros to do. That made GIFs really, really important to the spread of common Internet culture beyond this sort of western context of all of us spreading things that are interesting to us because it's a TV show we enjoy or a game we enjoy That sort of thing.

AD: And even within different parts of like even within the same country or within the same culture, you have your sort of different tribes, your different communities, and GIFs can break out of them, right?

KC: Yeah, oh completely. You can see, people will ascribe an emotional meaning, an emotional weight to a GIF. When you share a GIF with a friend in a messaging app, you're not trying to share a piece of content. It's a part of a conversation. It's a reaction! It's this thing that articulates the feeling I have without having to write it out.

AD: So it can be subtracted from context a lot. I think one of my favorite GIFs is Michael Jackson eating popcorn -- sort of a classic reaction GIF.

Woman: Can we get out of here?

Michael Jackson: No, I'm enjoying this.

Woman: Well, I can't watch.

AD: It expresses a lot of ideas, but I think one of them is the let me just sit here and watch what's about to happen now. And it's from the beginning of the long version of Thriller, the video.

And I'm old enough to remember that, and I'm old enough to have had the VHS tape. And I realize the majority of people sharing that now they probably 1) may never have even seen that entire video; 2) weren't born when it came out, and 3) it just represents a concept to them. How common is that for a GIF in the world?

KC: Oh, it happens all the time. In the work I do now, which is based around fandoms, we see the GIFs made from fan content from episodes of TV shows that one reaction that a character makes that feels so relatable, that somebody takes that, decides to download the video to their computer, make a GIF out of it, and reupload it to Tumblr, to Reddit...to all these places. They're doing it because they recognize an emotion, they recognize something that kind of relates to them, and then they want to share that out. When they share it out, it doesn't matter if the person on the other side is familiar with the context or not. They don't have to know the show. They just have to know that emotion. There's universality in that. That's awesome, right?

AD: That is really powerful. GIFs, it seems, are very, very tied to fan culture and very tied to how people express their affinity for a movie, a franchise, a brand — whatever it is. It's interesting because if you take whatever the popular fandom, say it's Harry Potter, each of the movies, if you probably wanted to find any given scene anywhere in these seven or eight movies, you can find a GIF of it somewhere. You can probably reconstitute all 20 hours of films just by stringing the GIFs together. But if you put up the same things on YouTube, you'd get shut down immediately. Why do you think the media companies or the brand owners or the people who control this media, why do you think the media companies treat a GIF so differently than they treat a video on YouTube or somewhere else?

KC: I work with media companies now and I found that they have a very different sense of what they think this content means to people and to consumers than we all do as sort of participants in culture. For us, what's important about a GIF is that again there's just that one scene, that one moment, that one emotion I'm trying to convey, and if I can use that to be able to throw that out there and find some resonance in my community, then that's awesome.

But for somebody who owns the IP, maybe that feels like copyright infringement. Maybe you're going to take something off of YouTube because you're going to look at a full episode being posted on YouTube and say, "Hey, if they're not watching on my service because they're watching over here in YouTube, that means that's monetization that I can't capture, and so I'm going to shut that down."

GIFs they've learned to see as a derivative work, which is good, and I actually credit GIPHY with that sort of greater understanding of culture.

AD: GIPHY is a company that has sprung up around the ability to easily discover and share GIFs.

KC: They had a lot of early conversations with the folks who own the TV shows and the movies and all the things that we kind of pull from media in order to help fuel our culture and sort of fandoms. And that's great! And that's interesting. One of the contradictions that I've always struggled with is looking at sites like GIPHY or Gfycat that will enter into an agreement to be able to say, hey, you as a media producer want to understand how this stuff is spreading, you want to understand why people are using it, or where people are using it. They're actually less interested in the why. So we can be the official home for your GIFs. So make a bunch of GIFs, upload it to GIPHY and we can give you a bunch of stats and everything.

AD: So this sort of centralizing of GIF culture.

KC: And that's weird Anil, that's really, really weird.

AD: Why is that different than YouTube centralizing video streaming or on-demand videos on the internet?

KC: Because, I can still take a GIF and send it from my phone to yours without having an intermediary. YouTube becomes an intermediary. GIPHY becomes an intermediary.

AD: They're curating culture. They're shaping it.

KC: Yeah, they start to root culture through them in ways that, maybe before there was a GIPHY, before there was a YouTube, we were trying to do that in a more decentralized manner.

AD: Right. In YouTube, you're generally looking for "I want to find a video of how to fix my sink", and that's there. But GIPHY, you might search for "happy" or "surprised," right? They're probably gonna give everybody the same set of results for "happy," right?

KC: Right. And so all of a sudden, you see the same GIF being spread quite a bit, right? You start seeing the range of expression that maybe during a more decentralized conversation around GIFs, be it a place like Tumblr, LiveJournal, or what have you. Now, instead of having the culture or having the community shape what's the most popular use of the word "excited." You get "excited GIF." Now you see GIPHY determining that.

AD: So to a media company, it sounds like a GIF of a clip from their movie or from their TV show is almost like a commercial or an ad for the content.

KC: Yeah, it's often the hope that you're putting something out there that somebody sees, and when I decide to share out a GIF from my favorite TV show, my friends see it. And if they know it, then now we have a common point of culture in between. But if they don't know it, maybe they say, "Oh, what is this? I want to understand why this is important to my friend, so I'm going to now click through to GIPHY link or I'm going to find another way to figure out where the source is."

AD: That idea of the GIF makes you click. A GIF makes you watch something. It feels a little bit like the early days of MTV where there's all these great music videos popping up, and the record labels are like, "Oh, these are commercials for the record."

KC: Right.

AD: It's only a couple years in where they realize, "Oh, this is an art form on its own," and it's almost within a decade they start selling the collections of the music videos as the product.

KC: Right.

AD: So the commercial becomes the thing that is actually the culture.

KC: I think the connection for the folks who sit in marketing departments who look at GIFs spreading and saying, "Oh, that actually helps build awareness for my brand," that's good. Because if it enables new forms of culture, it enables new derivative works...that's great, right? It's only when they then decide to go and try to climb down, and people go and try to re-centralize a thing that looks like culture that we tend to get in trouble.

AD: There's a point early in its life where GIFs are taking off on the web, and they have a sort of near death experience. Because the web is supposed to be open and free, and open source, and everybody can build their own web browser or whatever, make their own webpage. Then, we find out that a company called Unisys has a patent on the compression format used in GIFs.

KC: Yeah.

AD: Talk about what that moment was. What happened when that was discovered?

KC: I was somebody who, I think back then one of the things I did for a living was I built webpages. And I wouldn't say full on websites; I built webpages and used GIFs quite a bit. I remember seeing the report, probably on Slashdot somewhere, saying that all of a sudden this company was gonna start enforcing its patent around GIFs. All of a sudden this format, this file that seemed really important, not just to culture, but to the livelihoods of a lot of people who were trying to figure out ways it could help people express themselves on the internet, all of a sudden we realize, "oh, this might not be available to us." It was this really fascinating moment of some people going and saying, "Okay, I'm gonna deal with that. I'm gonna go learn Flash," and other people who said, "No, wait a minute. This is culture. Why do we have to put this back in the bottle now?" For me, coming from a long lineage of...it feels like hip-hop. All of a sudden it felt like we were having this sampling conversation all over again, right?

AD: Mm-hmm.

KC: All of a sudden, once the community had figured out a way to make a format useful and to find value in it, you had folks coming back in and trying to say, "Okay, now that you figured out that there's something here, I'm gonna shut you down."

AD: GIF sort of skates by in this gray zone for, well, 17 years, which is the term of a patent, right?

KC: Yeah, yeah. I believe there was a backing down of the lawsuit.

AD: They didn't want the entire Internet to get mad at them?

KC: Yeah, yeah, because they heard that's a bad thing. But then you also had this large generation of Internet users who were very young, who were making MySpace pages for the first time, right? They were maybe making GeoCities pages, and the copyright stuff didn't matter to them, or they didn't have a good understanding of it. Maybe they thought, "Well, I'm just gonna use it anyway, because no one's gonna sue me because I'm an eight-year-old kid."

AD: Right.

KC: Or, "I'm going to use it, and then I'm going to say: no copyright intended. Because, I've heard of something called fair use, but I don't fully understand what that means, so I'm just gonna say that, yeah, my thing is fair use."

AD: Right. It's the beginning of that great divergence between intellectual property law, and common practice getting further and further apart, and the un-enforceability of the Internet making it even irrelevant what the law or the patent says.

KC: And at a scale that we hadn't seen before. Because with sampling, the people who were sampling, the number of artists who are actually sampling is fairly small compared to culture at large. Maybe with the trading of VHS tapes, right? You had something that was sort of similar, but still that relied on that sneaker net.

AD: Right.

KC: Of me actually recording something.

AD: You had to physically hand the tape to someone.

KC: Handing it to you, right?

AD: They put a tax on video cassettes and on audio cassettes, because they were like, "These are used for copying our music, so we should get a cut of every blank tape that's sold."

KC: Right, right.

AD: It could have been every web browser has to pay this royalty in case a GIF is used to infringe on my intellectual property.

KC: Right. Those things feel similar. You know what else does though?The photocopy lore. Right? The age of the pre-Internet meme, right? The jokes that were shared in an office.

AD: Like, in somebodies photocopied zine, or an office thing the joke, the prank that people are sharing on the copier.

KC: I'm gonna take a Far Side cartoon, and I'm going to enlarge it on a copier, and I'm gonna run off a hundred copies, and leave it in the cubicle of all of my coworkers, right? Then, somebody else is gonna take them and do the same thing. Again, people taking, looking at culture and deciding that this is something I identify with, this is something that has meaning to me. This is something that represents and articulates something I couldn't say on my own, and I'm going to use that in a way where I'm gonna push it out there, because I'm using it to try to make connection. I'm not using it because I'm trying to skirt copyright and I'm trying to make a buck. That use is fairly small, in terms of numbers, compared to people who just want to be able to make a connection with somebody else.

AD: They're just trying to express themselves, so the way that a GIF technically violates somebody's intellectual property rights is more akin to, if somebody puts an illustration of Calvin peeing on the back of their truck.

KC: Right.

AD: Their goal is not to cheat Bill Watterson out of royalties on Calvin and Hobbes. To say, "Well Ford sucks, and so I have to have Calvin peeing on the Ford logo on my truck."

KC: Or, if somebody records a video of their kid and a Prince song is in the background, right? And you share that out.

AD: Why you got to make it personal? We'll go there for a minute. I'm a huge Prince fan. Kenyatta is alluding to a somewhat notorious lawsuit that Universal Records filed on behalf of the late great Prince. He had been very, very adamant about enforcing his intellectual property rights. This YouTube clip of somebody's kid's dancing in the kitchen. It's got a little bit of Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" in the background. This goes all the way to the Supreme Court, which, is probably the most extreme example of the divergence between intent and culture and what intellectual property law would allow.

But of course, this is the same guy who put a meme on the cover of one of his own tours, of his own singles. One time, he had a song called "This Could B Us (But U Keep Playing)." It was a meme of himself that he had seen, and then he made a song about the meme. The idea that these creations that are GIFs, that are memes, can come full circle back to creators and inspiring them to create, that does match what we see in other patterns, in other media, right?

KC: I think the moments where we can see that we can find reciprocity. Where we can find that the things we make as creators have a value that might actually be bigger or different than what we originally intended, and that when people take that idea, like a meme, and shape it, because it helps them in their conversation outward on their network. That's actually a really beautiful thing. If you can figure out ways to then look at that energy and figure out how to redirect it back so that a meme becomes the cover of a next album, or we find other ways to make sure that the benefit flows both ways, and that's good.

AD: Are there things we could only express through a GIF?

KC: I feel like there are things I can only express through a GIF, my God. You and I are talking right now, and having a conversation. If I sit down to try to write out a bunch of the ideas into a Medium post, it's not gonna work. If I try to turn it into a book, that's gonna be really hard. But, I think, if I actually wanted to sum up the "how I'm feeling about this interview" in a bunch of GIFs, I can do that in a moment., That's easy. That's great. I think there's a misconception that people who go and use GIFs in order to express themselves or communicate and reply on a forum post, in a message, etc., that they're somehow cheating or they're not being articulate, and I think it's the exact opposite.

In the same way that when we think about the early days of the Internet, a lot of us, if we were building things like sites, we had to build everything from scratch. We'd build everything from the ground up. Then people realized that, they're actually shorthand, right? We can start to build building blocks for that, and all of a sudden you saw things like APIs exist, you saw some things like libraries exist, which are bundles of code that help you build something bigger than if you had to craft every single brick on your own. GIFs are the same thing for culture and conversation.

AD: It's a building block that lets you express things by building on top of what somebody else has expressed before.

KC: I think, for that reason, what's gonna be fascinating is to see how people continue to use GIFs now, but what they become the building blocks for over time. How are GIFs gonna be used five or ten years from now? Are they gonna be used five or ten years from now? Are there things that are gonna happen at the platform level, or ar browsers gonna change in a way where we're in an even more appetized...that sounds weird.

AD: App-centric.

KC: App-centric world, where all of a sudden we don't have access to formats that are open. What happens if we don't have access to things that actually make it easier for us to have conversation with one another, without having to go through a central authority? I think, for those reasons, formats like GIF are super important.

AD: Kenyatta Cheese, thank you for joining us on Function.

KC: Anil, thank you. This was fun!

AD: Yeah, I think we have really comprehensively covered why GIFs matter so much in culture. After the break, we'll hear from T. Kyle MacMahon. He's a social producer for the show, Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen.

"But to me GIFs are additive. They help a character. They help an actor, a reality star, whatever it is that you are.... I always see it as additive and never taking away in full from whatever the product is." -- T. Kyle MacMahon

AD: Welcome back to Function. I'm Anil Dash. Now that we understand where GIFs came from and how they became a staple of Internet culture, let's talk about the ways we use GIFs today. T. Kyle McMahon is the lead digital and social producer for Watch What Happens Live. That's Andy Cohen's late night show on Bravo. Even before he came to Watch What Happens Live, T. Kyle had a really popular blog on Tumblr where he posted nothing but reality TV GIFs. Honestly, T. Kyle should be in the GIF hall fame, because it you've ever use a GIF from any of the Real Housewives shows, he probably created it. T. Kyle and I talked about GIF culture, his approach to GIFs for Watch What Happens Live, and also his role in making GIF history.

T. [Kyle] thanks for joining us.

T. Kyle MacMahon: Yeah, thank you for having me.

AD: Before we get into everything else, I just want to talk about, I feel like GIFs speak to our hearts and souls in a way that few other media do.

TKM: They do.

What was a GIF that either speaks for you now and that's your signature one, or was the first one that jumped out at you as like, this says how I feel?

TKM: I remember the first one I ever made very vividly. I was in college, and I was a graphic design major, so I was using Photoshop and taught myself how to make it. It was of Teresa Giudice flipping the table in that one episode of Real Housewives [of New Jersey].

Danielle Staub: I was arrested!

Teresa Guidice: Oh you're stripping? You were stripping? Prostitution whore! You were (bleep) engaged? 19 times? You (bleep) stupid bitch!

[sounds of table and dishes crashing, yelling]

TKM: It was really low quality, the file size was way too high, and it was the first GIF I ever made. And then that was really where it took off.

AD: Have you seen that reproduced all over the Internet in the years since?

TKM: Oh, yeah. It's a reactionary GIF that gets used all the time.

AD: Mm-hmm, it's like a staple. You've given voice to others through your judicious editing of this GIF.

TKM: Yes.

AD: The other thing I like there is, you also talk about the technical constraints. You're like, "Well, I don't like my use of color here," right? And the framing. That's such an interesting thing, because there are a lot of really hard technical constraints on this format, even though we see it all over the internet. Talk a little bit about that.

TKM: When I first started making GIFs, I remember it was for the purpose of using them in iChat and messaging back and forth with people in the dorms, and then it moved to, you know, when I got a professional job, messaging back and forth on iChat with co-workers. There really was no file size limit or color limit there, because you could just send whatever. We all had this running folder.

AD: Because you had a high speed connection with each other, so it doesn't matter how big it was.

TKM: Right, so it would just kind of, we all would send the same ones back and forth, and then when I started my actual blog on Tumblr, that's when it really got tight. Because it was a 500 kilobyte [limit].

AD: Which is small.

TKM: Was so small.

AD: Right.

TKM: I had to really figure out how many frames and what's the maximum amount. It wouldn't allow anything with hot pink for some reason. Anyone, like an old school Tumblr user will know, if you posted something with hot pink, it just would error out. It was this weird glitch.

AD: Wow.

TKM: Then it got moved up to a megabyte, and then it was life changing.

AD: That's like when Twitter went from 140 to 280. YVox ou just upgraded.

TKM: Yeah, and then they even put their GIFs at, what's it like, 15 megabytes now?

AD: Yeah, you can put a feature film in there.

TKM: Yeah.

AD: Okay, so you had captured something from a TV show, and I assume you weren't holding your, back then, flip-phones or whatever, or your iPhone 1 up to the screen to capture this thing. How do you create this? How do you take something you see on a show, on a film, on whatever's out there on the Internet, and turn it into a GIF that others can use as a reaction?

TKM: Back then, I feel like I used some janky video recorder for Mac, and I honestly don't even remember what it was.

AD: But, it was some app. You had some app that did this.

TKM: Yeah, it was like, you can use this to record your screen, and so I would just record what the clips I was watching on dot-com, or whatever it was, and then save it and try and figure out how to crop it, and work frame-by-frame.

AD: Right, but if you fast-forward now, to where you're an experienced professional in the fast paced TV industry, and you want to have high quality GIFs that look at good as the show does, what does your workflow look like? What do you do?

TKM: Well, for now, the show with Watch What Happens, I actually work with the raw file from the direct MOV, so it's much easier to pull into Premiere and crop it and clip it. On some freelance projects, I've been given the actual MP4, which you can just drop right into Photoshop.

AD: These are the actual production files that the same team that shoots the show uses?

TKM: Yep.

AD: You've got them as raw materials for your GIF creation?

TKM: Yeah, so I've done a mix of both ends of it.

AD: How do you feel that's been mirrored, if you think about how an audience, or people out on the web are reacting to what they see as GIFs? Say on Tumblr, where they see a couple shots from their favorite show, or the person who's their favorite character on that show...what does that mean to them now? How does an audience respond to that?

TKM: Well, I think now it's so much more mainstream, and you actually see people, because ...well, my journey had started on Tumblr, and I was one of very few people that was doing this sort of lowbrow reality TV crazy reactions.

AD: Taking it seriously.

TKM: Yeah, and it was a much smaller audience. Then, when Tumblr blew up, you had all the brands jump in and then really take notice of the creators. Then, you start to see live award show's talent being like, "Oh, make this a GIF," and actually saying it on TV, or doing things in the broadcast, knowing that someone at home is gonna clip that and post it on Twitter. Or, you have celebrities that say, "Can someone please make me a GIF of this from this show?"

AD: Right.

TKM: Or, "my reaction," or whatever. Even just the way the film shows now, which is debatable if it makes it better or not, but you see all these reactions from people in the audience, and they try and slap titles on the reaction, even though the people are just sitting there trying to watch the show.

AD: Right.

TKM: They're not trying to look shady or rude or mean. They're just watching the show, and that all now gets transformed into GIF content in real-time on social media. It's really transformed the way the actual shows happen.

AD: It's almost affected the productions, come 360 to where...

TKM: Oh yeah.

AD: ...the awareness that it's gonna get captured and shared, even is affecting the frame you see on the screen.

TKM: Right, and some would say that actually ruins the experience. I know a lot of fans, especially of music and of performance art, get mad when the cameras cut away from their favorite artist, or it's a live concert experience and it just flashes to random celebrities that look dead in the face. And they're like, no, they're just watching it like me, they're not trying to be funny! Just show the performer.

TKM: So it goes both ways I think. It can be really entertaining, but it also can, in a way, hurt the production.

AD: Right. It overemphasizes the fact that it's a reaction.

TKM: Right.

AD: So that's interesting. But what I hear, there's very strong evidence of this thing has shaped culture. Certainly it's made people who make TV and award shows and those things are very aware that this is where their content's going to end up.

Do you think, going back to those early day whether it's Tumblr and then later other networks, do you think that having a GIF of a certain show has made a show take off? Has made it become popular? Has it made somebody say, let me check out that reality show, even if I thought it was lowbrow, because wow, if they're having reactions like this, as I see in this GIF, there must be something dramatic happening?

TKM: 100%. There's two examples that I have where one of them, and I feel weird saying this because I very rarely like to toot my own horn, but...

AD: You're allowed to here. This is a safe space.

TKM: So, Big Ang, an amazing reality TV character, rest in peace...

Big Ang: Well what do you think about me having the Botox Bash? Like a little lift.

Boop, boop, boop, boop, boop...get a little Botox. Gotta get my boop boop boop done!

Shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, a little Botox, a little fillers...

TKM: ...she got a spinoff and I was making GIFs of her from this show that she was on and she became this beloved Internet character and the audience and social media really took to her because she was so funny and she was so out there and she was so wild, which made for the perfect Internet personality.

Got a spin off and it really just took off and she became such a beloved meme in a way, and person. And there's no one out there who can say anything bad about Big Ang. It was really because of social media and the GIFs and the memes and the screenshots and everything.

AD: Well it wasn't going to be text right. You weren't going to write a tweet and that was going to make her brand or her name the thing that people understood in the world. It was gonna be a GIF. It was gonna be an image.

TKM: Right. And for the longest time my blog was, I would say 75% dedicated to that spin off and Mob Wives and VH1...it really did make people watch and pay attention and tune in.

AD: So that was one example. You said there's a second example you can think of.

TKM: Yes. So Tiffany Pollard from VH1's Flavor of Love...

AD: Legendary.

Tiffany Pollard: You know what? I might be a fucking bitch to the heart, but at least I don't smile in all these girls faces because you fucking are a wolf in sheep's clothing. I'm not. I'm a fucking wolf, you see me coming.

Hottie: You guys are just jealous because all of my friends that know me tell me that I remind them of Beyoncé, so you can...

TKM: That's a perfect example of someone who hasn't been on television really in years. But you think about her as being the ultimate queen of reality television and also Internet GIFs.

AD: So the people producing the shows, the people in the networks, they knew if this GIF is made, this is going to help this show take off?

TKM: Yeah. I actually started the blog anonymously before I even made myself known.

AD: But there was Tumblr. There was the done thing.

TKM: Yeah. And then after about two or three years, I started to get noticed by people on Twitter. And you couldn't really share GIFs at the time back then, but they would write about the Tumblr.

I was working at MTV at the time and so my coworkers pulled me in and they were like, "hey listen, we see your Tumblr, we know you've got this Tumblr." And at first, I was horrified 'cause I was like, "Oh God, I'm gonna get in trouble, I'm doing all this stuff in my spare time at home and they're going to think it's a problem." But it actually was the opposite. They were over the moon and I actually wound up getting a new job because of it, and they were thrilled.

I freelanced for a couple of places so I've had nothing but positive experiences with it, because they see it as promotion.

AD: So that's an interesting thing because if you took video clips with the audio and it was in a format we recognize this video like we see on YouTube or something, it might've been a different reaction.

TKM: Yeah.

AD: What do you think would have happened? Like how do you think that would play out? Or what happens today if somebody takes a video clip with the audio and all that stuff and puts it up on another site?

TKM: Well, I think it's always been about, I would say the intention. I would say even small, short, almost at the length of what Vine used to be, was acceptable in a way, because it was a reaction. It was serving as additive. It wasn't trying to steal views or take away anything from the show.

AD: It didn't usurp the audience.

TKM: No.

AD: Do you think Vine's existence and the way people created and shared there would have happened without GIFs? Like was it video first or it just happened to be that format?

TKM: Yeah. I think actually, now that you say that, I think GIFs probably did lend a hand into this sort of reactionary video elements that was also super shareable across all platforms. Yeah.

AD: That sense that there's sort of a semiotics or a meaning to the format. Like you put it in this one form and it means something and you put it in this other format, it means something else. People don't think about that a lot for video.

You know, you work on a popular TV show and they've got the production budget and the cameras and the celebrities and all this kind of stuff. How familiar do you think the regular TV world is with all these aspects of online video culture and GIF culture that we're talking about? Are they fluent in..."it means this, if you do this." Back in the day you did this on Vine, or it means that if you did this with a GIF this time. Do you think people know that visual language?

TKM: I think so. I think because sites like Facebook and Instagram, which are much more...I would say...

AD: Mainstream maybe?

TKM: Yeah. Mainstream. And you can now add GIFs on Facebook and Instagram. Meme accounts have really become super popular and that's really consumable for a lot of people.

AD: So memes are for moms now?

TKM: Honestly, yeah. It really is.

AD: And do you notice...are the memes that you...if you go totally the most mainstream momcore, Facebook page, Facebook group, are they still sharing reality TV GIFs that you made years ago or is there some other idiom that they use? Is it new stuff or is it like the old classic GIFs are their whole repertoire?

TKM: There is a lot of new stuff. I always joked those very easy jokes that kind of you can make, it's about dieting and not wanting to go to the gym and sort of these very baseline, very easy jokes to make slapped with a funny reaction is always gold and always kind of works for whatever. And so that can always change. And, I think there's a good mix of old and new.

AD: Are there any celebrities or pop culture figures that you think are really good at using GIFs in reactions?

TKM: One of my favorite is Chrissy Tiegen.

AD: Yeah.

TKM: I feel like she just gets it.

AD: She's like a natural for online.

TKM: Yeah. And it's almost...I think a lot of times she probably holds back, because she could really be...sometimes when she tweets about Animal Crossing and these things, I'm like, "she would be so good on Tumblr and she probably has a Tumblr."

AD: Oh yeah.

TKM: It's very...

AD: She said she had a Neopets page back in the day, that's real.

TKM: Oh yeah.

AD: That's not...you're not halfway.

TKM: Yeah. And I feel like she gets the language more than anyone else.

AD: She's native to the vernacular and people can tell.

TKM: Yep.

AD: Are we going to have a next wave of stars, celebrities, whatever...people that grew up in meme culture? People that were like...I mean, granted you were in college, we think about somebody who was in grade school and Tumblr, and it's sort of beginning of Tumblr culture that's going to break out and sort of that's going to be their native language.

TKM: I don't know. One of the things that I think made Tumblr so great was that it was underground and, especially with Vine too, it gave a platform to people who weren't necessarily famous but were really funny and could connect and just make jokes and create weird stuff.

AD: There was no other place for that.

TKM: No. And it wasn't like they were trying to do it to be famous. It was a community and it created this world where people weren't trying to become a celebrity by making Tumblr posts and making Vines. They were just trying to be funny and connect with other people and be weird.

AD: So it was honest?

TKM: Yeah, it was honest and it was very genuine. And so...I don't know.

AD: If you piece together all the GIFs that are out there in the internet, you could probably rebuild an entire, I don't know, like an Avengers movie one GIF at a time, right? From the beginning to the end of, like, here's all my reactions from my stuff for whatever else is out there. Or, certainly A Star is Born. I think frame by frame will be giffed.

TKM: Yeah, I've seen a lot already.

AD: Yeah. Like beginning to end. Yet if you put out obviously that whole video on YouTube, they would shut you down. As a creator, as somebody who's created these things, how do you feel about what the social permission is in terms of how much material you can use and what you can turn into a GIF without it being too much or maybe getting in trouble?

TKM: When you said that you could piece every frame together and make the whole movie, for me, when I create stuff, I actually think a lot of times not everything needs to be a GIF, and so I'll watch things and I'm like "that 45 minute episode, I don't see anything necessarily." But there's other cases where there's really good reactions of stuff.

So every GIF is its own piece that can live in its own context separate from whatever it's attached to. So it's additive to the show. I never try and clip something to take away from a clip that's a video or a full episode. I always think this GIF can live on its own in its own context, be used evergreen. That's sort of my goal whenever I make a GIF and why I've kind of slowed down with my Tumblrs is because I have such...my collection, man, I love my collection so much.

AD: You can express all your feelings already with it.

TKM: Really. I mean, there's like a core group of GIFs that I have that I just love so much, and there's really nothing else I need to create. And if I see something and I'm like, "oh, this is something new," I'll throw it in the mix.

But to me GIFs are additive. They help a character. They help an actor, a reality star, whatever it is that you are...a music video. I think it's also super helpful for artists to be able to share these beautiful frames or moments that they have: funny moments, comedic moments. I always see it as additive and never taking away in full from whatever the product is.

AD: So your experience is that it's additive. But there are definitely times when the artists who've made these works are or, whether it's a film, a TV show, whatever it is, that music video, that they're going to see, if it's not you, maybe somebody else is not additive. They're like, they ripped my stuff and now people don't have to watch my film because they got the one funny beat, the one funny joke, or they revealed the punchline, or they spoiled the gag, whatever it is, and it's out there.

Do you think that there's going to be push back or have you ever heard of or encountered people pushing back on like, you took this and you put it into this format and, you can't make a GIF out of this?

TKM: I personally have never had an experience with GIFs. I have had experiences with video edits, like remix edits where I've had copyright taken down. But I've had a lot of people ask the question, "Are you ever worried that your Tumblr will get some massive lawsuit against it?" And my whole thing has always been, if it got to that point, I would have a ton of backup where I can say, this network reached out, they love it. Or, this story producer for this reality show reached out to me and said we edit our show with confessionals that we think are funny so people like you will make GIFs of it.

So I have...not that I don't know if that's any legal backing, technically...

AD: But at least there's an ethics to it.

TKM: Yeah. I think it's such a gray area now that hasn't really been explored. And there's obviously...the only case I see is with the Olympics where someone has actually laid down a rule and a law to be like, you cannot do this. But I do think it is a gray area and I do think every case sort of needs to be looked at. Because for me, I think as a creator it can really help your movie or your music video.

I'm not a big movie person, ironically. I'm very lowbrow in my content viewing...

AD: I respect it.

TKM: ...but I think the new movie Venom that's out right now? It's massive. I saw a GIF on Tumblr that was super HD, where his head transforms into that Venom mask, and I remember I sat there and I just stared at it. Just looking at every...

AD: It was mesmerizing.

TKM: ...yeah it was so mesmerizing. Every intricate detail. And weeks later I still remember that. And I now think of that movie as being so awesome. And also I remember with Black Panther, there was a lot of GIFs really capturing that brilliant CGI and just the beauty of it.

AD: And costume design and all that. You feel like you got a feel for the creation because there was a really good GIF representation.

AD: So, that actually gets into one last interesting idea I think, which is, when we talked about it, okay, you take a few shots from a music video, you put it on your Tumblr because you've captured it as a GIF. And then, BuzzFeed or anybody else back in the day or today, every site would do a roundup, and pull all that stuff in. And maybe take a GIF that you or somebody else had created, and their argument probably would be, "well, it's fair use because you didn't make the video, you're just excerpting."

TKM: Yep.

AD: Right. Did that ever happen to you? How did you feel about that?

TKM: Yes. I was very defensive of my site for a while because like you said, it would just be simple. Right-click, copy, paste, we're going to aggregate all of your Tumblr into our GIF database. So I had my entire site lifted by numerous GIF apps or GIF websites. At first, I was fuming, but then I also had to realize that, well, I don't technically own all this.

AD: Right, right. You had edited or curated but you didn't create it.

TKM: Right. And my argument was sort of...then I realized, my argument can't be that. It has to be, "you're steam rolling over the creator who spent time." I knew I had no legal standing, but it was more of a, "you open Photoshop, you take the clip, you save it, you export it and spend the hour watching the episode and, going through this book of timestamps." I have this book of timestamps where I would sit for hours and kind of timestamp my stuff out.

AD: Wow.

TKM: So I was like, "you know, you can do that. You don't have to copy it from me."

AD: But maybe they couldn't. That's such an interesting shift because it points out that, that curation and that eye, and that care to, as you said, frame by frame going through, is that in its own way, its own act of creation?

TKM: In a way, I think so. There's a lot of people on Tumblr who do similar stuff that I do, and I know they spend hours designing their layout or making a system of tagging so that you could find content and they pay for Photoshop. You have to pay for that stuff now. They buy the episodes and then they and you know, there is a little bit of time and an eye that goes into it.

So I think I was always coming out on defensive. Tumblr creators and sort of these people that I felt got steamrolled over by bigger powers.

AD: I think it's a wonderful place to sort of bookend this, which is that you go from being part of a small community and having an eye for this is some way to express ourselves in a new way. And then in just a few short years, it goes to being part of culture broadly. And GIFs may be the mechanism by which it happens, but it might be something larger in terms of what it expresses about culture.

TKM: Definitely.

AD: Well, T. Kyle, you are a pioneer of GIF culture; an expert on these pieces of how people are sharing their ideas together. Thank you for joining us on Function today.

TKM: Yeah. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

AD: That is it for this GIF-tastic week on Function. Next week, we're going to dig into one of the most contentious battles in the history of creating tweets: why the hell doesn't Twitter have an edit button?

Now I have my own personal strong feelings about this, which we'll find out in that episode. But we're also going to hear from experts who have very informed opinions about the pros and cons of twitter enabling us all to edit our tweets.

Function is produced by Bridget Armstrong. Our associate producer is Maurice Cherry. Nishat Kurwa is the executive producer of audio for the Vox Media Podcast Network. Our engineers are Srinivas Ramamurthy and Jarrett Floyd. And thanks to Jelani Carter for your help this week. Our theme music was composed by Brandon McFarland. And a huge thanks to the team at Glitch.

You can follow me on Twitter at @AnilDash. And you could check out Function online at glitch.com/function. Please remember to subscribe to Function wherever you listen to podcasts, and we'll be back next week.