Ah, the ubiquitous GIF. What would the internet be without those classic reaction memes of cats playing the keyboard, Michael Jackson eating popcorn and babies making suspicious faces? These little moments of compressed bitmap glory pop up everywhere, from texts bemoaning the start of another work week to your friend’s lame Twitter joke. But where does the endless supply of GIFs come from?
Tyler Menzel ’06 knows. It’s pretty much his job.
The USC School of Cinematic Arts alum is editor-in-chief at GIPHY, the online platform that enables users to find GIF masterpieces and share their own. He joined the internet startup in 2013 as its fourth employee.
“There were a solid couple of years where people thought I worked at a ‘gift’ company,” Menzel says. “I guess they thought I was curating selections of flavored popcorn tins and sausage samplers.”
The 37-year-old can laugh now. GIPHY has grown dramatically and its app brings a near-infinite supply of GIFs to smartphones around the world. But why take a risk and dedicate his professional career to curating a library of Simpsons snippets and clips of dancing puppies? Menzel spoke with USC Trojan Family recently to explain his undying joy for short, silent, endlessly looping online videos.
OK, Tyler Menzel. Let’s get some important questions out of the way. Hard G as in gargoyle or soft G as in giraffe?
For myself, it’s a hard G, though I’m not draconian about other people’s pronunciation. In fact, it’s fun to be in a dialogue with someone who has chosen the “soft G” life. There’s a conscious tension in the conversation as both people wait for the other person to back down. I’d never correct anyone, though — who cares? Just don’t call our company “JIFFY.”
All caps (GIF) or lowercase (gif)?
All caps, baby! I like the strength and dignity of an all-caps GIF!
Your reaction when someone uses one of those other GIF sites instead of GIPHY:
Where did you grow up?
Coral Springs, Florida. Proudly. I have an undying love for both the place and the people there. It’s a beautiful, strange, deeply frustrating place. One of my first “I’m an adult now” purchases was this painting by the artist Luke Pelletier, which I feel is an accurate celebration of the Florida spirit. There’s a recklessness that permeates into Floridians — sometimes it results in creativity, sometimes it results in destruction. A lot of times, it’s a healthy mix of the two.
Your reaction when someone mistakes you, yet again, for flutist and composer Tyler Menzel:
Do you remember the first GIF you saw?
Not specifically, but it had to have been on a GeoCities or Angelfire website. It’s easy to be nostalgic about those wild, GIF-covered websites now, especially since the internet in 2020 is so hellbent on sleek efficiency. GIPHY was (and still is) inspired by the aesthetic chaos that was the early internet. I had an Angelfire fan site devoted to the Pokémon Slowbro. I wish it was still up.
What brought you to USC?
I devoured media when I was in high school. I watched every movie I could get my hands on — renting movies at Blockbuster and stalking the small shelf of letterboxed VHS tapes at the Suncoast in my local mall. So, when it came time to think about what I wanted to do with my “future,” film school seemed like the only logical choice. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to make movies, but I was obsessed with watching them — obsessed with thinking about them. The USC School of Cinematic Arts, with its storied history and alumni, was a dream school for me, and the fact that I was accepted is still bonkers. I remember I wrote a deeply earnest essay on the film Magnolia as part of my application. They let me in anyway, which was nice of them.
How did you end up at GIPHY?
I had just summoned up the courage to quit a job that was dependable but that I just didn’t see any future in. I had no job — and, really, no prospects for a job. So, I found myself in that half-liberated, half-terrified place where you’re willing to take some chances because you can only go up from here. One night, I was at a bar with some friends and one of them started telling me about this GIF search engine that their old coworker had just started. They were looking for someone to come in and help organize metadata in their library of GIFs. Basically, they needed someone who knew the name of every character from every movie and TV show ever. And my response was: Hey, that’s what I majored in!
I had never worked for a startup before. My thought was: This is awesome. I get to hang out with these three smart weirdos while we do this fun project, and when this falls apart in 6 months, I’ll find a new job. Cut to 7 years later, and I’m still hanging out with those weirdos — except the job I was doing back then has turned into a whole department.
Your reaction when you realize you’ve spent seven years of your life staring at GIFs all day:
Speaking of that, what does being the editor-in-chief of GIPHY involve?
Even though GIPHY is substantially bigger than it was seven years ago, we still operate like we’re a scrappy startup. So, what that means is it involves a little of everything.
One day could be spent talking with our partnership team about ways we could work with a cool new TV show partner that just joined our platform, then meeting with our search team on creative ways our content could be distributed, then giving a presentation to the entire company about a new data-driven process we’re experimenting with to curate GIFs. It’s a lot of fun to have one foot in the world of content and one foot in the world of product.
Your reaction when someone suggests not posing with your favorite beer for your official headshot:
How did studying at the USC School of Cinematic Arts prepare you for a career in GIF oversight?
Without a doubt, the classes and professors at USC really imbued into me the belief that all media is worth thinking critically about. It could be Citizen Kane or it could be a slasher movie — we watched and discussed everything during my undergrad years. There’s value and meaning in pop culture. There’s value in so-called “low” culture. That type of thinking translated directly to the world of the internet: What could be more throwaway than some sparkly animated file that someone was using to decorate their Myspace page 15 years ago? But those types of images, and every GIF, Vine and TikTok video that was born out of those images, deserve critical thought.
Your reaction when you spot a fellow Trojan in the wilds of Brooklyn:
Not to get all philosophical, but why GIFs? What makes them so ubiquitous, and are they worth more than just a quick laugh?
Hey, getting philosophical about GIFs is what we’re all about, so this question rules.
GIFs are an incredibly efficient way of delivering emotion. In a matter of seconds, they’re able to communicate a surprising amount of emotional information. GIFs that are technically categorized under the same situational umbrella can have subtle, or sometimes very significant, different intentions. A Nick Offerman laughing GIF is different from a Snoopy laughing GIF, which is different from a Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation laughing GIF. Now add any kind of emotional attachment you have to that character as an additional layer of subtext. Add the capability for remixing, repurposing and recontextualizing as an additional layer, too. Those layers culminate in a powerful, information-rich distribution system for sentiment.
And sometimes that sentiment can be a quick laugh!
What is your favorite GIF that you’ve made?
Years ago, I randomly made a GIF of this frog puppet from a British public service announcement I stumbled onto via YouTube. The source material is actually really grim — I think the puppet had just drank some kind of indeterminate household poison. But the image of this frog stumbling toward a phone and just saying “help” before collapsing is a keen summation of how I have often felt throughout this year. I see it being used by a lot of people online. If this GIF ends up being my legacy, I’m fine with that.