Scrolling through constantly moving images of Austin Powers’ Dr Evil; snippets of Adventure Time; people falling over and cats, so many cats, it’s hard to imagine that the idea for gif-sharing behemoth Giphy came from rather high-brow philosophical origins. Specifically, from the ideas of Wittgenstein, the early 20th Century philosopher who investigated the possibilities and concepts of language. At first, it all seems a far cry from congratulating your colleagues in the form of a never-ending image of a man being applauded as he spins about on the spot. But after a chat with the effervescent chief operating officer of Giphy, Adam Leibsohm, you can see where this lofty association comes from.
“Language can be really clumsy and tricky if you’re going to talk about big ideas ,” says Adam. “It’s so hard to describe love with the word ‘love’. You end up trapping yourself, but at the same time you can’t invent a new language. Wittgenstein proposed a problem without a solution. We had an aha moment where we thought we don’t have to invent a new language, what if we just get out of using words?
“We were seeing gifs in emails and text messages and knew there was a visual thing happening. The lightbulbs all went off when we realised we didn’t have to use language. Gifs come from content, and content is global. Everyone has an understanding of culture, and you can use gifs as a way to express yourself. You get out of using a single word or image: you have a huge sphere of ways to decide what you want to say, and those things can borrow any moment from culture. ‘Love’ can be sarcastic or false or passionate, so that’s where the beginning came from…”
“We had an aha moment where we thought we don’t have to invent a new language, what if we just get out of using words?”
And with that “aha moment,” Giphy was born. This was only in 2013, and since then we’ve seen the platform develop from a search engine for gifs into a space where gifs are showcased, shared and created. The site was founded by Alex Chung, who’s still with the company, and Jason Cook, who left a few months into the project to move to Colorado. Alex and Adam had worked together on a number of previous projects, and initially created the platform as a resource to pool together gifs from various platforms.
Adam explains: “We were like, OK cool you can use gifs to get yourself out of this trap [of language]. But we thought ‘where are all the gifs?’ People are storing them in local drives but all these hinges are very clumsy and kind of a pain in the butt. We found some nodes and places with a lot of gifs, and we wanted to organise them and analyse them.”
While the origins of the platform are fascinating enough, those of Adam himself are just as surreal. His background is in advertising, having worked at agencies including Anomaly in New York. “All my stuff wound up being digital, so I built a bunch of games, I won a bunch of awards,” he says. So things were going well. But then Adam had an idea for a project that seemed too good to ignore. His utter faith in it saw him give up his apartment and job, effectively making himself homeless for a year to spend the money he would have spent on rent funding his idea.
This big idea, the one so big he sofa surfed for 12 months, was to use the data mined by various companies from people’s internet use to make money. “The whole idea was to share your clickstream in realtime with anybody,” Adam explains. “The goal was to turn data into currency. I wanted people to spend their data like money.” The project garnered Adam reams of press attention, and he was interviewed by publications including The New York Times. But ultimately, it wasn’t sustainable, and the platform no longer exists. “It was definitely a personal journey, but I was spending all my own money. You learn a lot when things don’t go your way. You have this thing that’s visible, then a year later people ask how it’s going. When it doesn’t exist any more they think ‘oh, you failed.’”
“We’re just a bunch of goofy, creative crazy people. We try to have as much fun as we can at work.”
Surely that must have got him down? “I soon just thought, ‘who cares?’” says Adam. He went on to consult for huge Silicon Valley companies like Twitter and Dropbox, as well as other startups. “I was figuring out what I could learn, seeing what I missed with my project. While all these people are very smart, I learned that there’s no secret sauce. You have to have the ability to execute and lead, be nimble and do things at the right time, and have a bit of luck too. You can’t control those last things, and if you lack any of them then it won’t work. If everything’s there, then it’ll work in your favour. Theres no right way to do it, but there are lots of wrong ways. You have to keep trying.”
And keep trying he did, bringing us neatly back to Giphy. The company now has two offices, one in New York, where Adam is based, and one in California, totalling almost 40 staff. “We’re just a bunch of goofy, creative crazy people,” says Adam. “We try to have as much fun as we can at work.”
Returning to the idea that there’s more to gifs than just throwaway internet culture, Adam says that all his staff are enormously creative – that you have to be in order to be into “gif culture.” It’s not all “fail gifs,” in fact, he reckons, gifs are “the future of information.”
“A visual is faster than reading, and we know and believe the way we transfer information in a social environment is increasingly based on visuals,” he says. “That perception that a gif is an ephemeral goofy thing will change.”
The future of news also looks set to be short and animated, with Giphy working with news outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph to explore the potential for gifs to present serious news bulletins, as well as stories relating to film, music and sport.
“What’s so elegant about a gif is that it can be anything, high or low culture. The joy and happiness of a sassy or a silly gif is excellent, and we always want to make people smile and laugh. But you can also use them to show what happened at a political event in a single gif,” says Adam.
“If there’s a visual in a story, there should be a gif there. The future is in the ways gifs haven’t been used yet: if there’s a visual there’s an opportunity.”