The olympics without animated GIFs

The IOC’s war on animated GIFs means we all lose

The olympics without animated GIFs
I made this animated gif from the air pistol event, but maybe the IOC will force Medium to take it down

Last week, news came out that animated GIFs were banned for the Rio games. It seemed silly, and like a quick power move on the part of the international olympics committee. Selling and managing broadcast rights of the games is a cash cow, and they likely decided promotional clips as GIFs were too dangerously close to stripping free video out of those rights, and harming the rights-holders.

Boo, hiss: The Olympic committee has a rule banning GIFs of the Rio games
Don't expect to see moments from the Rio Olympics immortalized in GIFs this year, like the one of the flawless vault by…

I can see their side of the argument, but I didn’t think the rule would ultimately hamper the ubiquity of GIFs on social networks, and that fans would quickly fill the void. Now we’re a week into the games and I realize I was way wrong. Yes, there are a limited smattering of GIFs here and there, but past sports events of this size and duration produced thousands of GIFs across my social streams. I didn’t think the IOC rule would have such a silencing effect, but it did.

There are almost no animated GIFs coming out of Rio, and it sucks. Fans didn’t fill the void, instead I’m mostly seeing Vine videos of TV sets instead.

How hard is it to make a GIF?

Turning video files into animated GIFs isn’t too technically difficult. If you have a video file, it’s easy to drop it into GIF Brewery, select the bits you want out of the timeline, then output a GIF (like I did above). The hardest part is getting live TV into a video format.

In the past, Vox’s family of SB Nation sites and Gawker’s Deadspin had the wherewithal to wire up live video streams into computers continuously, letting them furnish a GIF of any action within minutes of it happening. When the IOC signaled this was a no-no, SB Nation gave up cold turkey and no longer pepper their posts, Facebook, and Twitter with ample animated GIFs. For Gawker, they’re predictably gun shy about everything these days since Peter Thiel won his personal crusade to crush them. I didn’t think Vox and Gawker were a single point of failure on production of animated GIFs, but it seems like they are.

A Profile of Gawker’s Maker of Animated GIFs
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - At 2:44 p.m. on a recent Sunday, Tim Burke took a moment from monitoring numerous N.F.L. games…

For fans, very few people still have TV capture cards, appropriate video feeds, and the computing/storage to do it. There are torrent sites and there is usenet to share pirated feeds, but videos are often uploaded several-to-many hours after they finish airing. Any fans producing these on their own requires extreme dedication, and it’s essentially not happening much this time around.

Here’s why it sucks

There are so many wonderful, quick moments in sports. So many times something amazing happened, and only took a second, that used to serve as context for celebrations and posts from fans. Some animated GIFs were a nod to those that experienced them live, small aspects others might have missed. Other GIFs stand on their own and help share moments with people that missed them.

On the one hand, letting fans share GIFs is a huge promotional tool for the Olympics and every broadcaster. In the past, seeing random moments captured from sports drove me to seek out and watch those sports live, on those TV channels. Animated sports GIFs help contextualize stories, as writers could use GIFs to isolate and explain what was going on. I’m seeing none of that now, as news organizations seem to be walking on eggshells, making animated GIFs totally abstracted from reality, in order to not break any IOC rules.

Here’s why it is a thorny problem

Viewed from the IOC and broadcaster side of things, there’s not a direct 100% connection between people seeing something in a GIF and then rushing to a TV to watch more. SB Nation’s blogs have gotten so good at GIFs, it’s conceivable there are people that skip sports on TV entirely and just enjoy the highlights through Twitter and GIFs.

The main revenue for Rio is advertising, and you can’t insert a non-skippable ad into a GIF. People watching GIFs aren’t watching live TV with oodles of McDonald’s ads before and after swims. Broadcast rights to the Rio games were sold for billions as exclusives to single networks in each country, and those companies behind TV channels are very protective of their licenses.

This is our post-animated GIF world now

Here’s an example of this rule in effect. I ran across this tweet earlier today.

Notice it starts with a static photo, not of the actual pass? I didn’t see this game, so I had to click through, scan through a couple paragraphs on my phone, then find an embedded video file.

I pressed play, and watched a 15 second ad for the Samsung Galaxy 7 Note which I could not skip or fast forward. About 20 seconds of video showed the entire play along with a quick replay of the actual pass. The video ended with a 5 second ad telling me to watch the Rio olympics on NBC TV, on, or using one of the NBC apps on the various device stores. It was official NBC video playing in the US for me (could people outside the US even see it?).

In the past, SB Nation would tweet out an animated GIF of the actual pass in the tweet itself. If I wanted to see the whole play leading up to it, I would have clicked through for the video and context of what happened in the game before and after it.

What could have been captured and shared in a quick animated GIF turned into a couple minutes of clicking and watching, with a couple ads along the way. This is the goal of animated GIF rules and we just have to live with it.

Also, did you know that Tumblr is removing Olympics GIFs on fan sites due to takedown notices? That’s how bad things are.

So where do we go from here?

We need to figure out a way forward here, since it feels like the pendulum swung too far over into the rights-holders’ court. Fans aren’t seeing or sharing moments as GIFs like they used to. Fans are still talking about the games and showing photos and videos of their TVs (the wonderful comic/movie star Leslie Jones did it so well she ended up in Rio for NBC!), but I can honestly say I really miss GIFs of all the moments each day in sports NBC didn’t feel deserved prime time slots. Is this policy driving more people to their TVs? It’s too early to tell, but my gut says no.

In my mind, the role of an editor is a vital one in a world overloaded with information. I’m still big into blogging and think it still serves a purpose as writers pluck the few interesting moments out of the zillions of things happening each day in the world. People editing and curating things are providing value even when they’re not creating the original content. As people with sites with names like gymnastics gifs post their favorite bits, the audience gets to experience more of those moments, but in the wake of this IOC rule, blogs like that are free of olympic GIFs and almost seem dormant. Of the very limited and few animated GIFs from this games, I’ve seen amazing divers do flips, stoked cyclists leap onto podiums, and weightlifters celebrate their victories.

But for the most part? I’m seeing video clips of TVs, still photos arranged comic book-style to tell a story, or text descriptions of what happened.

The IOC’s one stupid rule has meant we all lost some context, easily shareable visuals, and ultimately killed a lot of chances for viral success of lesser known sports, athletes, and perhaps, the entire Rio games.

And all, for what? Some pre-roll ad dollars?

Thanks to Jessamyn West, Jay Fallon, @eliotmblake, and Amy Sanders for links/tweets in this this thread.