I get one kind of DM-slide over and over. It’s never anyone trying to hit on me, and rarely even someone harassing or trolling me. It’s teens who do not follow me asking me how I got an animated GIF as an avatar.
Sadly, I always have to explain to the teens that they must give up on their dreams, that their best try is not good enough, that they cannot hope to make an impact on the world. There’s no “trick” to having a GIF avatar other than doing something that’s anathema to most teens: not changing your avatar for five years.
Let me take you back to a simpler time: June 2012. GIFs were very cool, but still kind of a niche thing — there wasn’t an easy way to make your own without Photoshop, so most plebes couldn’t do it. Before Giphy, there also wasn’t an easy way to search for GIFs; savvy people saved ones they found into a “reaction folder” to use at the right moment. BuzzFeed had only enabled animated GIFs to play on the site a few months prior, in April 2012.
And it was possible to upload an animated GIF as your Twitter avatar. Well, not officially, but there was a workaround: Basically, Twitter said animated GIFs weren’t allowed, but if you resized it to a certain ratio and tested it a bit, you could get it to work. A June 2012 article on BuzzFeed explained in detail how to do it, step by step.
The article prompted this exchange between BuzzFeed’s CEO, Jonah Peretti, and Twitter’s CEO at the time, Dick Costolo:
After this exchange, the author of the BuzzFeed article, John Herrman, went ahead and made a suggested GIF avatar for Costolo:
Carolyn Penner, a senior manager for communications at Twitter at the time, even endorsed the GIF:
Shortly after this, Twitter closed the loophole for using GIFs as an avatar. Now, look — I can’t say for sure what exactly happened next (Twitter declined to comment and Costolo himself did not reply to multiple requests), but I think it’s completely reasonable to interpret from his tweets that Costolo was not at all amused by GIF avatars. Perhaps he was enraged. Perhaps he ran through the halls of Twitter HQ, shouting, “Goddammit, fix the GIF loophole, you chuckleheads!!” before busting into the server room shirtless and roundhouse-kicking the racks while tearing out fistfuls of wires. Look, I don’t know if that’s what happened, but it’s possible, right?
People who had previously uploaded a GIF avatar, such as myself, were allowed to keep them, but no new GIFs could be added. This means if I ever wanted to change my avatar, I could never get a GIF back. Basically, I have the grandma’s rent-controlled apartment of Twitter avatars, and I feel sentimentally attached to it, even though to be honest, I sometimes wish I could change it to something more professional.
And as much as it deeply pains me to admit, it makes me feel cool and special to have a blinky thing no one else can have. I know, I know. Trust me, I feel just as disgusted with myself as you do for admitting to getting any sort of internal validation from Twitter.
There aren’t too many of us GIFtars left. People like switching up their avatars, and undoubtedly some former GIF-havers were sad to discover when they switched to a static image they couldn't go back to their GIF later on.
Leia Jospe, a photographer from Brooklyn, has an animated GIF of a phone battery charging.
Like me, Jospe can’t bear to change her avatar. As far as cool points, “If anything it means I've been on Twitter for a long time,” she said. “I guess in a way that is special cred, can be cool or sad depending on how you look at it.”
Leon Chang, who uses Twitter for fun and pranks, also feels trapped. “I don't need to change it to anything else, but I have had nightmares of accidentally changing it and never being able to get it back.” On the other hand, he’s pleased. “I have the best GIF avatar on Twitter.”
I asked my old coworker John Herrman (keep in mind, he may be wholly responsible for the demise of the GIF avatar, so please tell him what you think of him: @jwherrman), who still has his blinky shark GIFtar, what he thought about it. A sick and truly twisted look crossed his face, not unlike Jared Leto as The Joker. “Well,” he said, grinning ghoulishly, “looks like my GIF avatar outlasted Dick Costolo.”
Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.
Contact Katie Notopoulos at email@example.com.
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