Animated GIFs are the ideograms of the Internet: image and language at once but not quite either one. Animated GIFs often acquire their most expressive power as punctuations or annotations to other stuff: text, photos, video clips, or other GIFs. And that's what makes Pop, a new mobile app from the makers of Zeega, so intriguing. Sharing GIFs with your phone may be fun, but mixing them together in unexpected ways—and then seeing others take what you made and do the same thing—feels like a new medium in the making.
A Pop, as the app's website explains, "is two things put together." It's really that simple. Those two things can be anything visual, but Pop's built-in library of animated GIFs (courtesy of Giphy) makes it irresistible not to use them. Connect the two "things" together, like a cut in a film, and share it to the network. You "read" a Pop by pressing and holding your thumb on the first image, which reveals the second element "hiding underneath," according to Pop.
That ultra-simple interface, combined with our natural curiosity/delight at each "reveal," makes for a user experience that may rival Instagram in its addictiveness. I've only made two Pops so far, but I've looked at dozens. "When we tell each other stories, we often speak in setup and punchline. There’s usually a reveal," Zeega CEO Jesse Shapins tells Co.Design. "Our brains are even hardwired for associating two things. Whenever we see something in the world, it makes us think of something else. Nothing ever stands alone."
Shapins says that his team got the idea for Pop when they realized that their main product, Zeega, wouldn't translate to smartphones. "Phones are the places where people are doing most of their recording and communication. With Pop, we wanted to create a public forum where people interact through remix," Shapins says. That's the key word: remix. If you were to boil down Pop's essence, that would be it—and that's what makes it feel web-native in a way that even Instagram and Vine never could. "The web has given rise to a new visual language," Shapins asserts. "People are building this language by making an entirely new lexicon—recording media on their phones, writing phrases on top of still images, or mining cultural history to create GIFs from movies and TV shows. We’ve felt inspired to make this shared vocabulary available to everyone."
But that superficiality doesn't matter. Most tweets were shallow, goofy, or dumb at first, too. And that doesn't mean they can't be genuinely creative at the same time. This Pop uses the app's "push and hold" interaction to create a talking puppet. This one uses the standard "setup/reveal" structure, but manages to create newsworthy pathos from it. Even this one—just two captioned stills from Seinfeld—somehow captures sublime comic timing in a way that even a looped GIF of the scene itself might not.
"When we started designing Pop, we first established the atomic unit as two pieces of media put together," Shapins says. "When we tested pressing and holding down, we immediately felt like this was right. A key characteristic of the mobile formats that have lasted is that they have a fundamental constraint that ensures simplicity, but that also enables a broad range of expression. For example, a Tweet is not just any 140 characters—it is 140 characters that can include a link to any content on the web and that can be responded to by anyone. Tweets can be silly, serious and everything in between, and Pops are the same."
I can't stop checking Pop, but in order for it to really take off, more people—a lot more—have to start using it so that the feed remains compelling. Shapins admits that this is a tall order for any mobile app, much less one that relies on a novel format for its content. But is it really all that novel? "When film was a new medium in the 1920s, the main obsession was montage, the idea that two images juxtaposed create a new 'third meaning,'" Shapins says. "When two things are put together, something new emerges, something not present in either of the images on their own." Maybe that's why using Pop feels so fresh and so familiar at the same time. I hope it catches on.