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Imgur just gave itself an early birthday present: One week before the popular image hosting service celebrates its sixth anniversary, it unveiled a web-based video to GIF conversion tool Thursday. The new tool makes it easy to create GIFs from any video clip hosted at YouTube or more than 500 other video sites. Imgur bills the converter as the next step to help its users tell stories — but it’s also a bit of a Trojan horse to give Imgur a bigger foothold in mobile.
The new conversion tool is a remarkably simple way to run videos into GIFs: Users just have to paste a video’s URL into a form field, select a segment of up to 15 seconds, add an optional caption and then let the Imgur servers do their work. As always with Imgur, users don’t have to register, and the result can be freely shared across the web and social networks.
That no-frills approach has helped to turn Imgur into one of the most popular image-hosting destinations on the web. Product and growth director Sam Gerstenzang told me that the site now generates more than 5 billion page views from over 150 million unique users a month. Initially, most of that activity came from Reddit, where Imgur quickly became the most popular image-hosting resource after launching six years ago.
Gerstenzang said that over all of those years, Imgur really just built tools that the community has been asking for, the latest being the new video-to-GIF converter. And it’s true: Animated GIFs have been celebrating a huge comeback over the last few years, fueled largely by Tumblr and Reddit. But by giving people a tool to create GIFs more easily, Imgur is also cleverly embracing another online media shift: People are increasingly consuming their news and feeds on mobile devices, on the go — and chances are that they don’t always have their headphones on.
That’s why some publishers and platforms have started to embrace muted videos. Just think of those clips on Facebook that auto-play, muted, or take a look at the content that folks like AJ+ are creating: Short, shareable clips that combine moving images with big, bold text, easily consumable without the need to actually listen. GIFs are really just a natural extension of this phenomenon. At their core, they are videos without sound, easily consumable when waiting in the line at Starbucks or during the morning public transportation commute.
Quizzed about this, Gerstenzang started to smile. “I think it’s huge,” he said about the mobile opportunity for GIFs, adding that Imgur plans to do a lot more in mobile in the future. Imgur currently does have apps for Android and iOS, but they’re really just app versions of its mobile website. Dedicated, more feature-rich apps could be coming soon, but Gerstenzang declined to share any further details.
Imgur has also been preparing for mobile by making GIFs themselves leaner. “The GIF format is sort of old,” said Gerstenzang. The company introduced a new container format called GIFV late last year that essentially replaces the animated image files with looped videos, which are typically just a tenth of the file’s original size.
Gerstenzang told me that Imgur now keeps three copies of each file, be it an animated GIF uploaded by a user or a GIF created by the new converter: A WebM version, which is the company’s preferred video format; an MP4 version for browsers that don’t support WebM; and an optimized GIF for legacy purposes.
Serving up looping videos instead of animated GIFs helps to speed up viewing on mobile devices, prevents browsers from slowing down, and as a nice side effect also saves Imgur a bunch of money. Gerstenzang didn’t want to elaborate on exactly how GIFV has impacted the company’s bandwidth, but said that it has come with huge cost savings for Imgur.