Once upon a time, I illustrated comics. The combination of words and imagery to tell a story was both powerful and compelling. So I’ve been watching with great interest as the animated GIF slowly wormed it’s way into the communication between people on social media.
They say an image is worth a thousand words, so in a medium often constrained to no more than a couple hundred characters, it makes sense that the animated GIF would rise as a visual short-hand to make a point.
Communicating a moment of introspection that led to a startling revelation, only to be told to hold your horses and chill? Then simply toss in a Breaking Bad GIF,
followed by a GIF of an old Internet meme,
rounded off with an IT Crowd GIF.
Those unfamiliar with the pop-culture references will still get the general emotions being conveyed, but to those in-the-know it provides an additional layer of understanding and an instant sense of connection and belonging. A nod and a wink that you’re part of the same cultural tribe.
GIFs as part of the way we communicate in social media, simply makes sense. But I have to admit that I was taken by surprise when it slipped into formal corporate communications last week.
A news site on Internet culture, The Daily Dot, was doing a story about live-streaming via YouTube. Richard Lewis contacted YouTube for comment and received as a reply an animated GIF. Naturally, he took it for an informal communication; an off-the cuff form of ‘no comment‘. But when the story ran, Google contacted the publication and insisted that it was, indeed, their formal response and to please make sure it’s part of the story. This is Google’s official response to the story:
It appears that this wasn’t a one-off, but is starting to become common practice for Google. While I celebrate the playfulness of this, I am going to toss myself into the stick-in-the-mud camp and say this is not best-practice for a formal corporate communication.
First there is the potential copyright fallout that could occur… Disney lawyers may turn a blind eye towards fans passing that clip from Good Luck Charlie back and forth among themselves, but when companies with deep pockets begin inserting their intellectual property as official corporate statements you can expect the gloves to come off in quick order.
But setting aside the potential fisticuffs between retained counsel, it is simply poor communication. Professional communication is about ensuring that information is fully and accurately relayed. When you’re talking about a publicly traded company, the actions of which impact hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of lives, you want the statements of that company to be clear, precise and leave no room for ambiguity or misunderstanding.
What exactly is the GIF Google offered saying? Is it saying the story is wrong? Is it a statement of surprise? Is it a no comment?
Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but those thousand words are provided by the beholder. The subjectivity of an image makes it unsuitable for formal corporate communications save for the most clear of messages. And even where the message is unassailable specific, like this other GIF offered by Google:
it would have been more to the point and straightforward to just say ‘yes‘.
As a strictly visual medium, the animated GIF is inherently exclusionary to the close to 7 million people in North America who are visually impaired, and as Wired points out in their coverage, the GIF only works in an online medium.
Most companies I know seek to have their message delivered as wide and as intact as possible. In cases where a material change is involved with a publicly traded company, there is a legal obligation to achieving that.
Choosing a means of communication that is immediately going to exclude people from receiving your message and understanding your meaning, preventing entire mediums from accurately relaying your message; this seems to me a very poor practice to adopt.