The neverending story: How IT reaches millions with its infinite loops

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Stop me if you've seen this before. You're in a Zoom meeting and a co-worker is talking up a storm, but... You know what? Just take a look at this:

"Muted my mic in a meeting" is an infinitely relatable concept for the millions of Americans now using Zoom as part of their everyday working lives. It’s also the most popular of the Work from Home Merit Badges produced by UAB IT Communications. Popular, that is, on GIPHY, the ubiquitous GIF-finding site, where it has racked up more than 530,000 views. All told, IT's GIPHY channel has accumulated more than 44.3 million views since launching in March. In addition to mic-muting, the gifs cover plenty of other common pandemic situations, including "Graduated in a virtual commencement" (510,000 views), "Remembered what day it was" (408,000 views) and "Pet, child or spouse walked into a Zoom meeting" (390,000 views).

What do you meme?

Memes, most often built from seconds-long, looping animated GIFs [What's a GIF?], "have become a shorthand way of communicating how crazy this time has been during the pandemic and remote work period," said Kerry Bean, communications director for IT. Bean's boss, Jason Johnson, is a meme connoisseur, she said. "He sent me a meme of some pandemic merit badges and our team immediately knew we could turn that into something fun." Bean’s team had raced to create essential content in the first days of UAB’s limited business model, including a remote work resources site and a video series explaining how to remotely access email and host video conference calls. The meme project served a different need. It was clear "this was something that would help bring some levity to everyone's situation," Bean said.

Bean and Macy Jane "MJ" Moon, a communications and marketing consultant in IT (and graduate of UAB’s Bachelor of Fine Arts program), started brainstorming tag lines and image ideas with colleagues. "We thought that this would just be an internal project that IT employees would engage with," Moon said. But the concept proved irresistible. Curt Carver, Ph.D., vice president for IT and UAB's Chief Information Officer, suggested several badge ideas, including one of Moon's personal favorites, "Participate in a DIY haircut." "I shaved my head at the beginning of quarantine, so it particularly resonated with me," Moon said.

From zero to 1.5 million views

The badges were originally going to be static images. "When we were coming up with the badge tag lines, I suggested we animate them so we could use them in our Instagram stories," Moon said. "At the time, the only way I knew how to put a GIF in an Instagram story was through GIPHY. We debated whether it was worth having our own GIPHY account, but when I started to dig around for other GIFs centered around information technology or cybersecurity, I found that options were slim. So we decided it would be best to start our own."

Less than a week after Moon posted the first batch of Work from Home badges, "our account had more than 1.5 million views," she said. "This was something we were not expecting." But it was clear that they had uncovered a valuable niche. "We decided to branch out and try new things when we realized the amount of reach that we could have on GIPHY,” Moon said. “This included creating stickers for stories using the UAB brand with actionable phrases and simple illustrations. These have not only been used by UAB accounts and students but, according to the analytics, they have been picked by millions of other GIPHY users."

Reduce, reuse, recycle 

Many GIFs are recycled from videos and graphics Moon has already created. "We've been able to find new meaning for content that already exists, like our cybersecurity awareness videos," she said. Her personal favorite GIF, "8-bit Blaze," was created as an asset for AskBlaze, the artificial intelligence-powered chat tool in the UAB App. "With a little motion we were able to give him personality," Moon said.

An IT employee with an amazingly accurate Stormtrooper costume from the Star Wars films is a crowd favorite at UAB's Homecoming parade and other events. Moon has used the same short Homecoming video clip for a number of GIFs. "Our most popular is one that says, ‘Running into a tech problem? Let's troubleshoot,'" Moon said. "It has 347,000 views."

Moon creates most of her GIFs in Adobe Illustrator and animates them using Adobe After Effects. (Because UAB is an Adobe Creative Campus, students can access the entire suite of Adobe software for free, and licenses are available by request for faculty and staff.) "However, there are great tools built in to GIPHY that allow you to create GIFs using existing content," Moon said. "This lets you upload photos or videos as well as pull directly from YouTube and Vimeo. That's how we created our security series with a video we already had."

GIF secrets from the pros

IT's most popular GIF may be its simplest: a large white arrow on a UAB-green background that goes through a clicking animation. "That one has 10.7 million views," Moon said. "I think its simplicity is what has pushed it to users."

The best GIFs run in a seamless loop, Moon said. "It's also important to think about timing and decide how long you want the GIF to last on the screen. Our Work from Home badges last 15 seconds to match the duration of an Instagram story, while the cursor clicks every two seconds to grab attention."

Looking to get into the GIF game? Research is crucial to success, Moon said. “I thought about the types of tags I search for when looking for GIFs as well as what trending topics relate to the content that we were uploading,” she explained. “We added these to GIPHY around mid-April. Tags like ‘quarantine,’ ‘work from home,’ ‘zoom,’ ‘social distancing,’ and ‘remote work’ were all trending keywords.”

What's next? Moon and Bean are "making plans to expand our Instagram story GIFs to include more call-to-action stickers and illustrations," Moon said. They also have plans to create new GIF games (play the first batch on GIPHY here and here) and a second series of Work from Home badges, "but that is still in the brainstorming phase."

What’s a GIF?

GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format. An animated GIF rapidly shuffles through a series of still images, generally around 15 frames per second. (This is slower than the frame rates used in movies and other video, which explains the characteristic jerkiness of GIFs. The fuzzy, low-res quality is another common characteristic, used to keep file size down.)

How do you say GIF? A continuing debate rages online between those who pronounce it with a hard “g” and those who prefer a soft “g.” Moon and Bean are decidedly in favor of the hard G. “That’s the only correct answer,” Bean said.

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