Garrett Miller - Loudgif
Mashing Up Gifs and Sounds. Pew Pew Pew.
Who are you and what do you do for a living?
I was an art major at Oberlin College and I paid for a lot of it by doing a lot of web design stuff. So, I did that for a long time, and then I worked in government for a bit and moved over to doing web development for a company called O Power. I joined when it was really small and then it grew huge and I left because it was too many people. Now I’m doing Mapbox, which is mapping software.
I love working at startups because I get to do design, write code, work on the business — I get to travel and do all that stuff. And I think that’s true for most people here. Almost everyone here does a lot of different things. You fill the role that you want to fill.
The funny thing about Mapbox is, the way they found out about me - it wasn’t through working with O Power and being in the DC tech scene. It was through Doodle or Die, which is a project that I’d been working on that was sort of popular. But Mapbox tends to hire people who have side projects. People who spend night hours or extra time working on what they want to work on, which is sometimes involved with what they’re doing [for their job]. I mean, Doodle or Die was a project I was doing with other O Power engineers on the side — there was definitely spillover there. But that’s really interesting to me because it means that people here tend to be pretty freely independent thinkers. So, yeah, that’s the long answer of where I’m at now.
Charlie got hired there because of a side project right?
Yeah, exactly. Charlie’s an interesting story. He decided to, on his free time, follow NASA’s landsat feed and process the imagery on his own. I think you might have seen that little Twitter story on him getting hired.
Yeah, I remember seeing his Flickr album and seeing the quality of his mapping images and I think it got written up in Wired.
I think within a day of him tweeting at us we had an offer out to him. Now he’s based out of San Francisco doing it full time.
Almost everyone here we hire, the big thing we look for is people who are hungry to work on things and it’s funny how closely that relates to things they’re doing on the side. When you hire a designer you don’t necessarily need to see if they’ve worked on a product before or worked at a startup before. You look at the projects that they’re actually doing and the art that they’re making and think, “How could this apply to cartography or maps? Could they learn to code?” It’s whether there’s something interesting there.
The project we’re going to talk about today is loudgif. Could you give a quick description of what loudgif is?
Loudgif is, at it’s most basic, a way to combine the sound from a Youtube video with an animated gif. It actually started at Mapbox in the chat one day. We were talking about branding and redesigns and one of our designers just got frustrated and made this awesome animated gif. It’s a Mapbox logo done in the style of a 1990/1980’s video intro. Almost like an educational video intro — with like lasers and 3D text and stuff. All I could think of was that same sound that you hear makes laser/lightsaber sound so I very quickly built a little single serving index page.
The first iteration of loudgif was actually not that far off what it is now. Actually, the way it is now is not that far off from what I first built. It was his full-screen gif and I found a Youtube video searching for 1980’s VHS sound effects. That was the very first one. That was on a Friday, and then Saturday I just bought the domain and decided the name was just kind of, “Oh, of course, it’s loudgif.” And the project just made a lot of sense from there.
Was that gif your 404 page for a while.
It’s still live now but not wrapped in a TV.
I was wondering how you tend to use loudgif. Is there a community that you’ve seen where it’s the same people showing up, or one-off visitors, or Mapbox employees making stuff for chat.
It started with Mapbox employees, obviously. That Monday we were making them — Charlie was doing a lot there. And then, as you know, we have some friends online who are moderately influential. There’s the micro-community of me and my friends and we always come back to it. But the biggest community that’s taken hold is just because of our friends who are in publishing — through people like Rusty and through other folks. Publishing media as it stands now, I’ve started realizing, is a lot of twenty-somethings who embrace really stupid ideas like this and it’s a really funny way of kind of pushing a medium into ridiculous ways. Animated gifs have had this huge resurgence in the last - not even resurgence - I think they’re having their first time in the sun, officially.
For a long time animated gifs were just a pain in the ass because they were huge. Animated gifs haven’t gotten better, they’re still four megs, but internet speeds have caught up to the point that you can finally start doing them easily. The fact that gifs are making their way into modern publishing platforms, it made sense that that community would have fun with loudgif.
My analytics for loudgif are pretty basic, so I can see when traffic bumps come in and where they come from. Up until very recently it was just, like, publishing media that was doing it, but last week SB Nation started using it. They did a whole little micro article, or one of the blogs within SB Nation did it.
I’ll go and search Twitter once a week and see where it’s at because there’s no real metrics to follow since there’s no database. I’ve seen a ton of sports loudgifs now and everyone’s making these sports jokes that I absolutely don’t know. The Republicans found it a couple of days ago and started making Obama jokes with it. It’s funny, it has it’s time in the sun with these little micro communities and then people forget about it, and then there’s a couple of people who kind of latch on and spread it a little bit. But you know, it’s a single serving site and it finds fans in very weird places. The communities are fragmented.
It seems like you’ve with mashups before. Windoodles is basically a mashup with art and landscapes, and then you had Imagine Awesome where kids submit drawings and then you redraw them. I was wondering if you notice yourself gravitating towards mashups and what you find interesting about them.
I always look for ways to make the world a little more ridiculous. People take all these things really seriously and I think we can have a lot of fun with different things. That’s usually what I find my projects end up gravitating to — figuring out what things can be combined to be made hilarious. Windoodles was ridiculous. Imagine Awesome is literally about imagination and taking this fact that kids are infinitely more imaginative than us and much better at freely thinking and discovering things. [It’s about] taking advantage of that and looking back with adult skills. I always joke that I never have side projects that will make money. I always have side projects that take a lot of time, and are ridiculous, and don’t do much to push anything forward. They’re just there to exist and be ridiculous.
Every time I try to force these ideas it never works. And I haven’t had one in a while. Loudgif was my last little, “Here’s a stupid idea I’ll implement it really fast,” projects. I’m never spending my time thinking of things that are actionable or profitable. It’s always like, “That could be made more ridiculous.”
I noticed this trend where in the beginning your projects were, it seems like all the things you make are about helping other people get stuff online, letting other people express themselves. In the beginning with envelope collective people were sending things to you and you were figuring out how to present them - taking the pictures and documenting them. Everything was going through you. The same thing happened with Windoodles and Imagine Awesome, everything was going through you. But then with Doodle or Die and loudgif, people are making their own submissions. Do you miss the review process? How do you think things change when people are able to post without things coming through you personally.
Envelope Collective was one of my big college projects and it was interesting to be going through an art major and saying, “I’m not actually making any of the art, I’m facilitating it.” It was a ton of work. It was two to three hours a day of scanning envelopes. It was interesting because the whole point was that I was always decent at drawing I was like, “Well what if you just said that everyone can be okay at drawing and the rule is everything you submit is posted?”
Imagine Awesome was curated but it’s not my art, it’s someone else’s that I’m interpreting. Loudgif and Doodle or Die are different because with loudgif you immediately receive the product that you’ve created and you can do whatever you want with it and spread it around. For me, it’s really fun to take a step back and see what people do with it. That’s the most fulfilling thing of any tool.
Doodle or Die was interesting because we built it and were like, “Great let’s see how it does,” and it went very viral very fast. We got to see this thing we built just get used by everyone, and then immediately get completely abused by everyone. We spent months having to build spam detection and stuff.
When you expose something to the masses, you see this community of people who just adore it and spend hours a day on it. Even now, it’s like an average of 30 minutes a day per user, which means some people are spending hours on the site. It’s really fascinating to watch a community of people embrace something you’ve built and then completely make it their own. Sometimes it was frustrating to not have more control over that, but we looked at what people wanted and built tools to make that happen. So, in a way, Doodle or Die is facilitating that [behavior] but we’re just not self-curating it. You don’t have a lever you can pull to say, “This is good.”
But Envelope collective was interesting too because we set the rules, and the rules were, “Anything you send in, we will put online.” And that was frustrating at times because those were our rules, but there were things that were sent in that were sometimes terrible or offensive but we would still put them there. We had our own little commentary box, so at least we could have our say.
But it’s weird because as I’ve moved further away from design in my professional career — I was thinking about this the other day — I haven’t made art in a long time. I’ve made projects, and I’ve made things that can create art, but I personally don’t do much art anymore. I would not consider myself an artist, and I don’t know that I have considered myself an artist in a long time. But it is definitely very fun to think about the power of the internet now, and how easy it is to build something that someone can use. [It’s] very different from when Envelope Collective came around. Going from a manual process to an automated one and almost crowdsourcing a community is very interesting.
Where do you think the line for doing art is?
It’s funny because projects are defined in different ways now. I haven’t picked up paints since college. I haven’t really done anything tangible since college. I doodle all the time, but that’s not art, that’s just doodling. When I think about what’s my next loudgif thing going to be I honestly haven’t spent more than eight hours total time building loudgif even though I’ve spent some time following it along and making sure things are going right. I probably won’t be doing art because I don’t have the time, or I don’t have the patience anymore, maybe. It’s just way more fulfilling to be able to create something that other people can use for themselves and have their own community.
At some point you move from art to design and I don’t know if there’s a difference there. I work in maps now and I get to design maps and that is a form of art. It falls more in my mind into design, almost a form of graphic design. And that’s always what I work towards.
My coworkers here do things during the day with maps and do things with our tools that I do see as art. One coworker built a map where he literally broke our tools in order to design this chaotic map. It was this chaotic map of multiple fonts and labels and he basically broke the data in order to do it, and that to me is art. And he’s a designer that does these things during the day, and so part of me wonders “Where did I go wrong. Why am I not doing that and why am I not as inspired to do that?” There’s definitely that challenge. But it’s more that I recognize that what I’m good at now is filling in these different holes and letting these designers who are significantly more talented actually do these things. Hopefully I’ll find a way to be better, but I think that’s every artist’s thing where we’re never good enough. I think my solution to never being good enough is to build tools that other people can use then to make me feel good about it.
[This sounds like kind of a downer ending but Garrett’s tone was light, and he’s obviously awesome, so you should all leave this page feeling comforted by the fact that everyone has the same worries that you do. Here, take these loudgifs :)]