From “white guy blinking” to “crying Michael Jordan,” thousands of GIFs have been sent out from the stables of GIPHY, an unassuming tech-giant housed in Lower Manhattan.
These brief seconds-long moving images used in texts, tweets, emails and Instagram feeds as a way of visually communicating emotions have been adopted universally, said co-founder Alex Chung.
“Anytime you send a GIF that's most likely from us. And anytime you see a GIF it's most likely from us,” he told “Nightline.”
With over 300 million daily users, the burgeoning tech company is estimated to be worth $600 million. The co-founders said that the initial purpose was to help people communicate.
“It’s turning into entertainment because communication and entertainment sort of map together. Emojis or emoticons weren't really getting at the lifelike aspects of communication,” Adam Leibsohn, the company's chief operating officer, told “Nightline” co-anchor Dan Harris.
GIFs are not an entirely new creation as what many consider to be the first GIF was released in 1987. The first viral GIF -- pronounced gif with a hard "g", not jif -- was “the dancing baby.” Human impatience, according to experts, is partly behind their success.
“It used to take you 10 minutes to explain what you were talking about," Chung said. "Now, you can do it in a couple of seconds."
The average human attention span is just 12 seconds, scientists say.
Sherry Turkle is a professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and she studies people’s relationships with technology.
“They are serving a very important service, the trouble is, you start to get attached to your GIFs," said Turkle. "You can forget how much you’re not communicating, how much you’re using a kind of avatar of yourself and sending it out there and hoping that avatar does the work for you."
It’s not just a potential loss of interpersonal skills that has some critics worried about the rise in popularity of GIFs. As we farm out our emotions to GIFs and memes, some say that communicating in short-form leads to stereotyping, generalizations and, ultimately, a form of cultural appropriation.
“The internet likes things that are exaggerated, that are over-the-top. And, so, when you already have a group of people that are stereotyped for being over-the-top you meet that with the internet and it just -- you know -- it goes viral all the time, and it's super exhausting,” writer Lauren Michele Henderson told “Nightline.”
She sees this phenomenon as a digital blackface of sorts, in which users use the relative anonymity of an online, disparate identity to embody another culture. In writing on the topic for Teen Vogue, she notes instances in which users frequently use GIFs of black women to connote emotions stereotypically thought of with black women; for instance, anger, drama, shade, or sass.
“When you start to represent people in these cookie cutter ways, and they're not afforded the full range of humanity," she added. "I mean -- that is racism -- that looks like racism."
GIPHY co-founders said that the solution to this issue is to add a greater diversity of GIFs and memes so that users have more choices.
“Any time there is a culture put out, other cultures will appropriate the culture and it becomes something -- it becomes part of mass culture,” said Chung. “I definitely do think there is a responsibility for media companies to look at what they're doing and how they are a citizen in this kind of community.”
The company has had a few snafus. Earlier this year, a racist meme slipped onto its platform.
"That was a bug in our moderation filter. Once we found [it], once we were alerted to that piece of content, we took it out immediately, within minutes, and then we did an entire review of our entire moderation system,” said Chung.
At the core, GIPHY is a search company that uses paid search and promoted search to monetize its GIFs.
“We modeled ourselves after the Google model. Google invented ad sense, the most profitable business model on the internet. And we do the exact same thing that Google does,” said Leibsohn.
GIPHY’s success has led to thousands of corporate partnerships with companies like Netflix, Hulu, Comedy Central, and the NFL having their own channels. They partner with the Oscars to create live reactions. And in a new effort to create their own content, GIPHY works with studios and labels to have celebrities drop by their studios in New York City and Los Angeles to create original content.
“Ideally, anyone who's making really culturally relevant content that people are going to want to see or watching their television -- they are going to want to see that represented in GIFs,” explained Leibsohn.
Both avid readers said that GIFs were not meant to replace long-form or solve delicate conversations with nuance.
“It's totally possible, but we're not trying to replace things that are really useful," said Leibsohn. "We're trying to add to the new ways that people are using technology."