After years of stubborn caution, Facebook is finally embracing the animated GIF. Next week Facebook will begin testing a GIF button that lets users post GIFs from services like Giphy and Tenor as comments. Facebook confirmed:
“Everyone loves a good GIF and we know that people want to be able to use them in comments. So we’re about to start testing the ability to add GIFs to comments and we’ll share more when we can, but for now we repeat that this is just a test.”
At first this GIF comment button will only be available to a small percentage of Facebook users, but it could roll out to everyone if it proves popular. It will work similarly to the GIF button in Facebook Messenger, allowing users to both browse trending GIFs and search for specific reactions in-line. Users still won’t have the ability to select and share GIFs as News Feed posts, but comment GIFs could lay the groundwork for that.
Facebook has long shirked the animated image medium. The rationale was that allowing flashy, eye-catching GIFs might distract from the rest of the News Feed experience. Facebook has even reportedly had support for GIFs built for years, but delayed rolling it out for fear of disrupting the feed aesthetic.
That was before Facebook News Feeds filled up with auto-play video. Eventually Facebook permitted News Feed sharing with the direct URL of a GIF file, but that meant users had to search for them on sites like Imgur or Tumblr, or host them themselves. Then Facebook only allowed Pages and ads to share GIFs. There was still no GIF browser and no uploading by users allowed.
And all the while, Facebook’s feed downranked “low-quality memes,” which could include ‘image macros’ made up of a GIF + overlaid text. Messenger added GIF sharing back in 2015, but the main Facebook app still didn’t play nice with the format.
This anti-GIF orthodoxy eventually began to hold Facebook back. Fellow content-browsing site Imgur has ridden GIF sharing to 150 million users, and BuzzFeed’s GIF listicles have been some of the most popular links leading people away from Facebook.
But now Facebook is diving headfirst into visual communication, following Snapchat’s lead as social media usage evolves from text statuses to rich media. Most of that focus has been on video. However, Facebook sees flexibility as crucial to keeping users from straying to other broadcast channels.
If the test is well received, Facebook comment reels might soon be filled with ‘reaction GIFs’. These typically use a clip of a movie, television show, or cartoon to express the emotion of the user, from excitement to concern.
And eventually, Facebook might loosen up and add a GIF button to the News Feed composer. After all, GIFs are just the best moments of video played on loop, and Facebook says video is its future.