Explaining Animated GIFs - Or Not

The word "GIF" is in the news recently thanks to being named the Oxford American Dictionary's word of the year.  Today I saw a video that's part of the PBS series Off Book, which explores the history and usage of the animated GIF. 

The video is included below, but before we get to that, I want to point out an explanation problem.  At about 30 seconds into the video, Patrick Davidson of MemeFactory appears to answer the question "What is an animated GIF?" 

Here's how he did that:

An animated gif is an image that's been encoded using the graphics interchange format where it has multiple frames encoded into a single image file and a web browser or other software will play those images back in animated sequence automatically.

Can you see the problem? His answer is succinct, technically accurate and completely incomprehensible to most people. This is a great example of why people are intimidated by technology.  

Let's consider a different approach.  I don't know to what extent the video is meant to help people understand the concept of an animated GIF, but what if we made a simple connection to something everyone knows instead?  What if Mr. Davidson's answer was something like this:

Have you seen those little flip books where an image seems to animate when the page flip by? An animated GIF is a digital version of that.

Photo credit: SEM Wisdom

Think about the difference.  This second example is more of an explanation. The goal is to increase understanding and give people an invitation to see an idea from a new perspective. Mr. Davidson's perspective plays a valuable role in understanding GIFs, but it depends on some degree of technical knowledge. Those without that knowledge are likely to lose confidence that animated GIFs are understandable. That's why I advocate starting with a more fundamental point of view, something that builds confidence and provides a foundation for the more technical parts of GIFs.

Here's the PBS video "Animated GIFs: Birth of a Medium", which I recommend despite the explanation problem.

NOTE: If you're interested in learning in-depth about the skill of explanation and how to make Common Craft Style videos, check out our online courses at the Explainer Academy. Or, check out our free guide to creating ExplainerGIFs.