Eight years after the invention of Twitter, animated GIFs have finally come to the network. That’s way too slow, and it tells us a lot about the speed with which Twitter is adapting to the way people use the Web these days.
Animated GIFs, image formats which display a looping video clip, have been around since the days of Usenet and America Online. For nearly a decade they fell out of fashion, until their slightly kitschy nostalgia brought them back to prominence. Quick to load and easy for anybody to create, they’ve slowly repopulated the Internet.
For the past year, you’ve been able to embed and share animated GIFs on Pinterest—and far longer than that on Tumblr and Reddit. Among the social networks that matter, Twitter is dead last in providing this functionality.
Thanks for the final concession, Twitter, but the fact that it took you so long to add support for GIFs is a symptom of your larger problem.
Why Visual Matters
Whether you think they’re tacky or terrific, animated GIFs are a hallmark of the visual way users browse and create on the Web.
People have grown tired of text. And with faster network speeds, their devices can load images just as quickly as they once loaded simpler applications. From the days of cave painting, humans have always been visual creatures. As attention spans shorten and Internet speeds, increase it’s clear which we prefer.
See also: The Triumph Of The Visual Web
Welcome to the Visual Web, perhaps the fastest growing segment of the Internet. Pinterest, the image sharing platform you can no longer afford to ignore, is valuated at $5 billion. GIF pioneer Tumblr has got the youth market cornered in a way Yahoo! could only buy, not replicate.
As Twitter is probably well aware, young people aren’t adopting the social network at the same rate they once were. Instead, they’re over at Tumblr, Snapchat, WeHeartIt, and upstarts too new to name, each with one thing in common—heavily visual interfaces.
Twitter, which rose to prominence on 140-character text-only messages, has only recently gotten the visual bug. It launched Vine support in January 2013, but video never caught on as quickly as GIFs. Silent and auto-loading, you don’t need to press play on a GIF. Meanwhile, just try loading a video on your phone in a public place.
In October 2013, Twitter finally allowed for image preview support, giving it a wannabe Pinterest-grid look. Twitter users could share screenshots as well as video—just not their tweener cousin, the GIF. Meanwhile, the GIF captivated more and more Internet users, taking the best of both worlds and providing sites like Buzzfeed a tool on which to hang their business models.
In the past eight years, many Twitter users have found other outlets for their creative GIF expression. Twitter’s begrudging support looks like too little, too late.
The Problem With Twitter
Ever since the company’s public IPO last fall, Twitter has struggled with investors unhappy about its user growth.
With 241 million monthly active users, the social network may not look any less bustling than before, but it’s adding users at a much slower rate than in past years. Perhaps it’s because, even after eight years, many people still don’t agree on its purpose.
One obvious solution would be to appeal to a younger audience, and animated GIF support might be an effort to do just that. But after all this time, it’s likely that teens have already chosen social networks that allowed for GIFs long before now.
Not much has changed since CEO Dick Costolo’s first post-IPO discussion about what he planned to do to remedy Twitter’s slow growth. A few weeks ago, Twitter shares lost more than $4 billion in market value as early investors unloaded their stocks. The fact that Twitter now offers GIF support probably isn’t going to turn things around just like that, especially when investors can pour their money into networks that predicted the Visual Web ages ago.
As Twitter tries to become everything to everyone, it risks driving its core audience away. At its invention, Twitter was revolutionary. Let’s hope it isn’t doomed to become an afterthought.
Update: Facebook does not support animated GIFs. We regret the error.