Apple Wades Into Murky Waters with Native GIF Integration

Arguably the biggest update iPhones received with Apple’s rollout of iOS 10 this month occurred within iMessage. What used to be a simple text messaging app can now send stickers, doodle, and let you search for GIFs. The new features aim to make messaging with friends more fun. While there certainly are people who will find all of these features annoying, the GIF search feature has already backfired in unexpected ways.

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Apparently, the intersection of tech and popular media is home to hardcore porn and Nazism, as well as your typical benign images. The Verge reported that users have encountered sexually graphic results from GIF searches as simple as “huge.” At one point, Nazi-related images were also surfacing.

Apple is a giant technology company. More than 100 million iPhones are carried in pockets and purses, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

The common convention for software with so many users is to make the user experience plain and simple, so as to appeal to the broadest spectrum of buyers. The point is not to make smartphones boring, but to avoid alienating people by exposing them to content that makes them uncomfortable.

Smartphone software has, for the most part, been pretty plain and simple in its user experience. Whether you use iOS or Android, your phone lets you send text messages and pictures, take photos, browse the Web and download apps (oh yeah, and make phone calls). If you want to find cute GIFs to send your friends (like this pug stuck in a toilet), that’s what the Internet was for until now.

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The difference with iOS 10’s updates to iMessage is that it integrates image and GIF search natively in the software. You don’t have to search the Web or download a separate app to find an image to send; Apple is providing that capability, powered by Microsoft’s Bing.

This all seems harmless. After all, GIFs are everywhere. It makes sense to make it easier for users to do something that’s already popular.

GIFs are usually pulled from popular media, so not all users will be familiar with each individual one. For example, if you’re searching for GIFs that express a particular emotion and the results only turn up GIFs from television shows and movies you’ve never seen, you might not find the feature useful.

GIF search in your keyboard is nothing new. Both iPhone and Android users have had the ability to use third-party keyboards to search for GIFs. If a user has a bad experience with a particular GIF keyboard, it’s more likely to be associated with the app than with Google or Apple. With iOS 10, Apple has provided the platform, despite the risks.

Even with the popularity of Apple TV and iTunes, it’s hard to think of Apple as a media company instead of as a tech company, and a native GIF keyboard is not going to change that. But this is nontraditional territory for a company like Apple. And it’s not the first time the company has put things on its phones that people might not want. It faced blowback in 2014 when it pushed an entire U2 album onto all Apple devices.

A GIF keyboard powered by a popular search engine is a portal to all types of content, whether innocent and playful or graphic and offensive. There are no trigger warnings in a GIF keyboard, so Apple itself has to moderate and disable searches that turn up the latter type.

If even a search as seemingly innocuous as “huge” can be problematic, it’ll be interesting to see how, if at all, Apple will modify this feature.

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