Matthew Cherry has been an NFL player, successful filmmaker, writer/director, and more. In 2018, he’s most known for being a GIF whisperer.
Cherry began a crusade to find the true story behind the world’s most pervasive GIFs just last week, inspired by a thread he saw on the timeline of a college student named Engia Chara, where she provided the backstory to a popular Michelle Obama GIF, a Jay-Z GIF, and a few more.
The idea reminded reminded Cherry of an idea he’d had the summer before: dig into popular GIFs past and expose the videos they came from.
“I wanna create a thread called #GifHistory,” Cherry tweeted. “Send a gif that you want to know the backstory to and we’ll try to find the original video.”
He began by tweeting out a popular GIF from a rap battle that took place in the mid-’00s. The GIF has become a shorthand reaction shot for anyone getting owned online.
“The original video is from a rap battle on Desawn Raw’s youtube channel from his alter ego Supa Hot Fire,” he tweeted, linking to the video the GIF was sourced from.
His thread went viral, his first tweet racking up over 61,000 retweets.
“That rap battle was one of the first viral videos I ever saw on the platform,” he said, referring to YouTube. “That video has several famous GIFs in it and it seemed like a good one to start with. It had a good loop, and the history behind it was pretty interesting too.”
Cherry said after tweeting out an initial few GIFs he began to get recommendations from followers or people who stumbled upon his viral thread. He was amazed at the community that popped up around the #GIFHistory hashtag he created.
Twitter users were tweeting GIFs with the hashtag, and strangers who knew their origins would respond with where they came from.
Some GIFs, however, have proven more elusive.
Cherry and Chara both said they find the majority of GIF origin videos by simply reverse Google image searching, but some do take more work. When they get stumped, they turn to meme history sites like Know Your Meme.
“It was just something that was fun to do on a lunch break,” Cherry said. “I had no idea it would become so popular.”
Chara said the experience shows that there’s a “backstory to everything.”
“I really like finding where samples of music come from and what other songs they were in. I think people see GIFs the way I see music in songs. It’s not just this thing attached to a random tweet—the GIF has a history and story behind it,” she said.
Sometimes that story can even alter the meaning of the GIF itself.
Cherry said there was one GIF of a young black child fighting against the wind. He and most everyone else assumed that it was from a kids’ show.
But when he dug into it, he discovered it was taken from a video of a strange yoga program.
“I was like, is this a really real show?” he said. “The guy was kind of creepy.”
Another mysterious GIF of a woman tearing apart her apartment “pulling down curtains, trashing the place” came from a BBC show he’d never heard of.
“That was from a BBC series called Eastenders. I had no idea of the backstory and had never heard of it before,” he said.
After poring over the histories of thousands of GIFs, Cherry said he now has particular ideas about what makes a GIF go viral.
“The stuff that spreads are those things that you think in your head like, ‘Hmm, I wonder if I’m the only one thinking this.’ GIFs that are relatable are the things that tend to go viral,” he said.
Many people of color, specifically young black men and women, are denied credit for the memes they’ve created or giffable moments they’ve produced.
Shedding light on the videos behind the GIFs is also a way to recognize or pay homage to those who have been featured in the viral clips but might have previously gone unrecognized.
Both Cherry and Chara said providing additional context around popular GIFs help gives credit to those creators.
Chara said she believes those featured in GIFs “deserve recognition for being such an integral part of our culture. Twitter and GIFs are such a big part of how we communicate and interact with each other.” She also believes they have earned the right to some compensation.
“I think most part people have no idea where some of this stuff is from. People don’t know who’s who and it’s easier to just type in ‘applause’ in Giphy or Twitter and just curate stuff,” she said.
“I think if people knew where this stuff came from, it would be much easier to give people credit.”