Exploring and Understanding the Storytelling Potential of GIFs

How GIFs are used across different platforms

From memes to animated data visualizations, GIFs have become a staple in the way we communicate digitally to express ideas, feelings, and concepts. GIFs are a self-contained media format consisting of several single-frame images; it’s a format that is more compact and shareable than video. Additionally, GIFs are platform-agnostic; this means that they are not locked into any one platform’s ecosystem -- like Instagram or Snapchat stories -- to dictate how they are shared.

This studio project is concerned with exploring how GIFs are used to tell effective stories and why they’re used in some contexts rather than others. Through our continued research, we are looking at how people create and use GIFs to tell stories, and how we might make that work better.

Understanding How GIFs are Used

To understand the different ways GIFs are used and shared, we needed to come up with a classification system. We found that a system based on content was a good starting point. We identified four purposes for using GIFs:

  1. moments
  2. illustrations
  3. explainers
  4. memes.

Every GIF we could find could be classified into at least one of these types. By sorting the GIFs we found into these four categories, it was easier to decipher which GIFs are most popular for what topics, and what kinds of users use which GIFs.


Moment GIFs are a literal representation of the subject. There is no text or background added to the GIF; it is simply a GIF of the actual footage of the topic.


Meme GIFs add humor to the clip. They are similar to moment GIFs but there is an added element of humor. This can be done by adding text or images.


Illustration GIFs are moving graphics or drawings. They are not based on a video, rather they are a piece of artwork that moves to get an idea across. They are often supported by editorials and opinion pieces.


Explainer GIFs are graphs and charts that show data. The moving format often shows a change in data over time.

We wanted to explore whether different media platforms used these four categories differently. Before creating a tool that would allow people to create their own GIFs for storytelling purposes, we thought it was important to distinguish what kinds of GIFs people prefer to use on which platforms. To answer these questions we decided to compare the GIFs found using the same search on various social media platforms.

Top 50 GIF results after searching climate change and democratic debate:

Climate Change

Facebook Reddit Google Twitter
Moments 5 6 7 11
Illustrations 15 1 21 9
Explainers 0 1 19 12
Memes 0 3 4 18

Democratic Debate (Sept. 12, 2019 ABC)

Facebook Reddit Google Twitter
Moments 1 0 35 11
Illustrations 1 0 0 3
Explainers 0 0 0 2
Memes 0 1 15 15

Instagram and Snapchat did not have a GIF filter option so we were unable to include them

  • Twitter’s main GIF used can be categorized as “Memes” no matter what the topic is, informational or entertaining
  • For more informational topics, represented by our climate change search, all platforms had a higher usage of “Explainer/Informational” GIFs.
  • More entertaining topics included a lot of “Moment” GIFs, which could be used as a meme if taken out of context later on
  • GIFs are easiest to find and most popular on Twitter


In our observations, many people who are using GIFs on social media use them for humor, which explains the abundance of “Meme” GIFs. What we discovered is that while humor is the primary use case for GIFs, there are still many examples of people sharing GIFs on various platforms to convey information and even news.

Moving forward, we will be prototyping stories based on our understanding of how people use GIFs on existing platforms and the characteristics that lend themselves to storytelling. We will be creating these “stories” using various constraints so that they maintain their “GIF-i-ness” while still telling a visual story. Brevity is a challenge, but we believe that with the proper constraints, we can make a tool to help people tell stories using GIFs that can be transportable between platforms.

About the project

Storytelling with GIFsFacilitate simple visual social sharing.

This project will build upon prototypes and research conducted in the Fall 2019 Studio class, but participation is open to any interested student. As the open-web continues to die, storytellers need tools that help them create sharable artifacts suitable for a variety of social networks and platforms. Brevity and portability are of the utmost importance. This project is concerned with designing a tool that allows novice storytellers to create simple 5 frame (5 images) GIFS that when combined with text for the post, are sharable on a variety of platforms and social networks. This iteration of the project will be focused on UX and UI design and building a sustainable application for the creation of visual stories saved in the GIF file format.

About the authors

Justine Banbury

Emily Chaiet

Naeem Patel

Idrees Kamal