British Columbia·Analysis

IOC bans GIFs from Rio, internet reacts poorly

By disallowing GIFs and exerting control on social media, the IOC might actually lose out on its future, younger audiences for the Olympics.

Restricting content on social media at odds with where audiences can now be found

While the Sochi Olympics was laden with GIF moments, the IOC has banned GIFs at the Rio Olympics. The internet will have to be content with #PhelpsFace memes sans GIFs. (@davidpowell83/Twitter)

Remember the GIF of the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony when one of the snowflake Olympic rings just wouldn't open? 

Or the GIF of the Austrian slope-style snowboarder who had a false start at the Sochi Olympics and then had to climb back up the slippery hill only to slide back down?

Fast forward two years to the Rio Olympics, and you might have expected some whimsical tidbits of social media video showing Michael Phelps's game face scowl. But have you seen many #phelpsface GIFs?

Nope. 

The International Olympic Committee has decided to clamp down on all GIFs. IOC rules state; "The use of Olympic material transformed into graphic animated formats such as animated GIFs (i.e. GIFV), GFY, WebM, or short video formats such as Vines and others, is expressly prohibited."

Naturally their absence has some fans quite upset. 

One Twitter user even pointed out the Big Brother nature of it. 

Of course the IOC can handle a few huffy tweets. But by running with this ham-fisted approach, it shows it doesn't have a sense of humour or fun, and it risks losing out on the very audience on which its future depends.

IOC vs. social media

The IOC did not state explicitly why it brought this change in 2015, but one can make some inferences.

Broadcasters — including the CBC — pay millions of dollars to get national exclusive rights to televise the Olympic Games in their own countries.

Elicia Salzberg, a University of British Columbia lecturer in commercial law and business fundamentals, says the IOC is trying to retain control of how its content is viewed and in a way, justify charging the amount it does for the rights to broadcast its content. 

"It would be a reasonable interpretation that they're doing this so that they don't splinter or fracture the audience from their traditional media stream," Salzberg says. "They want to preserve the value that they offer in their relationships with these official sponsors."

But audiences are starting to turn away from traditional media, such as television, while at the same time digital audiences have been growing.  

Live-streaming platforms, such as Facebook Live and Periscope, which did not exist before 2015, have burst out of the gate and found new, younger audiences. In many cases, the audience you can amass on Facebook far outpaces the audience you'll find on traditional media.

And it's a generally accepted fact that monetizing online content — and more recently social media content — is difficult.

Recognizing this potential problem, the IOC decided it needed to up its game.

It has gone from passively watching other media outlets successfully venture into social media to now taking a more active role. During the Games and especially while in official venues, all athletes and accredited media have to follow its social media dictates. 

"They're basically trying to stop non-affiliated companies from finding ways to exploit an association with the Games," Salzberg said. "Now the IOC is reacting and trying to control and monetize these new platforms. And they're doing that by putting in these very strict rules." 

IOC rules

But the IOC can set whatever rules it wants, because, well it can, and media outlets that cover the events have no choice but to accept them because the Olympics are generally a ratings bonanza.

There are other requirements many media outlets adhere to — geofencing content so only people in a specific region can see that content (typically restricted to a country) and not posting videos on Snapchat. 

Breaking these rules is not worth losing the right to broadcast the Olympics for most media outlets.

Writing on the wall

To be fair to the IOC, it's not the only sporting organization that has put restrictions on social media. 

Gawker Media's sports site Deadspin and Vox Media's SBNation had their Twitter accounts suspended for GIFs of NFL-owned content for copyright infringement in 2015.

A year later, Twitter is reportedly paying the National Football League $10 million US to stream 10 Thursday night games during the 2016 season.

It's hard not to see the writing on the wall. Sporting organizations are trying to retain control of their content on social media, but the very act of controlling social media is at odds with the concept of social media. 

What most of us love about the medium is its inherent distance from authority figures and its disruptive, quirky meme-filled, GIF-laden fun. 

A photo could do the job when covering a triumphant sporting moment, but a GIF or animated video would be so much better, and the audiences know that.

About the Author

Tamara Baluja is a producer for CBC Vancouver.

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