Jasmyn Lawson Literally Does It For The Culture At GIPHY

All hail the GIF queen

Photo courtesy of GIPHY

In celebration of Black History Month, NYLON is running a spotlight series called UNAPOLOGETIC. Every day, we’ll celebrate different aspects of black culture through profiles, interviews, roundtables, reviews, videos, and op-eds. #Blacklivesmatter and we hold that truth to be self-evident.

You may not even realize it, but Jasmyn Lawson is the reason you've been seeing a surplus of PoC-related GIFs on your social feeds. The 25 year old is the culture editor at GIPHY, a role that she created for herself. Lawson was originally hired by the media company for a different position, but her team immediately recognized the value of her efforts to make GIPHY's content as diverse as possible. 

"It started out with me just wanting more GIFs of black women on the site and it just snowballed into more projects focused on providing more representation for many minority groups and their intersections," she says. 

The Spelman alumna's work isn't exclusive to her race though—Lawson ensures that all of the other marginalized groups are represented in the GIF world from Asians and Latinos to people with different body types and disabilities, as well as members of the LGBTQIA community. So basically it's her job to keep GIFs in line with being a reflection of everyone. (Not a bad way to pay the bills if you ask us.)

In addition to getting #BHMGIFParty trending on Twitter, Lawson also spearheaded a collaboration with black artists for the platform. "GIPHY wanted to focus on celebrating black history by honoring those who've paved the way for our current success and freedoms and those modern revolutionaries embarking on new paths of resistance," she says. "All month long we will be celebrating black icons, #BlackGirlMagic, #BlackBoyJoy, and everything in between; joy, self-care, and perseverance."

Learn more about how this pop culture fanatic paved the path to become a full-on GIF queen in the interview, below.


What was your childhood like and how did it shape the person you are today?
"I grew up an only child and my mother was and still is a single parent. That dynamic made us very close. She's definitely my best friend. And I grew up never thinking our situation was different or weird in any way. Despite being a check-to-check household, my mother always went above and beyond for me. She went out of her way to make sure I had access to anything I wanted to do: dance lessons, ice skating, tennis lessons, acting classes, summer camp. She also raised me very pro-black and although I never grew up hearing the word feminism, in retrospect everything she did was very much black feminism. We would watch Soul Train every Saturday morning, and my mom's music collection included the likes of Prince, Janet Jackson, Faith Evans, and DMX. She also made sure I had an abundance of black dolls and black books. I assume my childhood was like the working class version of how Solange and Beyoncé grew up. My mama's totally Miss Tina. Her determination to make sure I always felt like I could do anything I wanted and the deep appreciation for our blackness definitely has everything to do with who I am today. I see myself as someone worthy of a seat at the table and I also see that for all disenfranchised people. And I believe my purpose in this world is to make sure those who are often left out are afforded opportunities, feel seen, and feel heard and that's largely due to my mother simply doing that for me."


Can you tell me about your academic background?
"I attended Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, where I was a theater major with a minor in film studies. Spelman was my dream school. I wanted to attend since the age of 11 and everything I did academically from the seventh grade on was in preparation to attend Spelman. However, I didn't visit the school until a few months before I was set to attend. So my dream was really just based on a lot of assumptions of what I thought it would be. Good thing Spelman surpassed all of my assumptions. It's truly my favorite place in the world. Being in an environment where at its core is a focus on black womanhood helped me to finally put language around my identity. There were so many feelings and ideas I had about myself, but never had the language to describe it. For example, I knew I often felt a feeling of disconnect between myself and white women when it came to our experience as women, and Spelman taught me about Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and intersectionality, understanding what it means to be both black and a woman, and how that intersection allows for different life experiences. But also going to an HBCU was just a lot of fun. Where else in the world can you be in a cafeteria surrounded by hundreds of other black women eating, fellowshipping, with Xscape or Ashanti playing in the background? And I hold those types of experiences and what I learned in the classroom at equal weight. There was so much power in just simply being around women who looked like me and seeing them both struggle and succeed with me. I ultimately want to find my way back there some day."


What else does your role at GIPHY entail? 
"Being the culture editor also includes curating GIFs that reflect what's trending in pop culture. For example, the Foreign Press might have just found out who Migos are via Donald Glover, but I've always considered them important. As soon as their Rap Snacks video went viral, I recognized the value of making sure we had a GIF of Quavo saying "witta dab of ranch." The same goes for Shawty Lo, when he passed away I knew for a fact that the internet lacked quality Shawty Lo GIFs, and so I made it a priority to make sure that if people searched his name they would get quality results. There are moments that happen on the internet where I just know people are going to search for related GIFs, and I want to make sure we can provide. If Kim K calls out Taylor Swift I'm 1,000 percent certain you'll find quality Kim K and Taylor Swift GIFs, but for a lot of people Shawty Lo is very important and they deserve quality results too. My friends joke all the time that I'm literally working 'for the culture' and when I think about it like that it provides me so much purpose."


What previous work experience prepared you for this position?
"I've always had a passion for pop culture and the media. My background is in television and digital media. I moved to New York in 2013 to do the Page Program at NBC (and this is 100 percent due to Kenneth from 30 Rock no lie), and as I was figuring out what exactly what I wanted to do I realized I was extremely interested in where traditional media and the internet collide. After the Page Program, I worked for Showtime for a bit, and then my last job was at a social marketing agency where I focused on digital and social media campaigns for TV networks including HBO, Cinemax, Hulu, and TBS. I think I've been successful mainly because I am the audience. I probably spend more time watching TV and scrolling social feeds than I do anything else. I'm the type of person to get mad if you make me miss my shows, and live-tweeting them is like breathing air at this point. 
"And all of that has definitely prepared me for the 'curating content for the internet' part of my job, but at the same time, I'm also a huge advocate for #RepresentationMatters. There is just so much power in seeing yourself represented in the media and GIFs are more than just a file format they're a new way of communication. When an ashy troll comes into my mentions it's important to me that I have a GIF of a black girl rolling her eyes. And I know the same is true for other minorities. As much as I love The Hills and Lauren Conrad her eye rolls really don't capture me. And I believe my ability to recognize how powerful the images we consume are and how much representation matters is the other half of what's prepared me for my position."


Please tell me about all of the Black History Month content you've been hosting on GIPHY!
"We decided to go about this a few different ways. The first idea was our black hair GIFs. I had an idea to do an illustrated series that not only captured the ways in which we wear our hair but also the ways in which we experience our hair. From taking out your braids, to getting your scalp greased, to the black boy sanctuary of the barber's chair, I wanted to capture those nuanced experiences. I pitched the idea to our GIPHY studios team, our creative agency located in L.A., and they were very excited about it. And it was actually them who pitched the idea of making sure GIPHY hired black artists to do the work. This particular project has been in the works for a few months, but we decided Black History Month would be the perfect time to reveal them. The reaction to the GIFs has been overwhelmingly positive.
"The next idea we had was to create a series of portrait GIFs for significant black icons who don't necessarily always get their flowers. The list includes: Toni Morrison, Shirley Chisholm, James Baldwin, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Claudette Colvin, August Wilson, and John Lewis. Ironically enough, I chose John Lewis to be highlighted before he became a hot topic, but when that happened I realized how many people didn't know who John Lewis was. It reassured me that the work we were doing was needed and important.
"The Black History Month content currently lives on the GIPHY culture channel and includes other categories that I've curated over the months including #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackBoyJoy. The original plan was just to launch it and promote it within our own platforms. However, a few weeks before the content went live I was connected to someone who's a member of Twitter's @BlackBirds team. For Black History Month, they built a direct message chatbot to interact with their followers and wanted to integrate GIF content! It was kind of a match in heaven that we just so happened to have a ton of content they could use. To celebrate the partnership and all the great content we decided to throw a GIF party on the first day of BHM... #BHMGIFParty. All day long both GIPHY and @BlackBirds paid homage to historical black icons and those still paving the way. I mean, Viola Davis just got nominated for her third Oscar a few weeks ago, so the history is all around us, and I'm happy GIFs get to play a role in celebrating it."


Working on the internet has its ups and downs, so what keeps you motivated to keep doing this? Also, how do you stay sane amidst all the craziness?
"The thing that keeps me motivated is knowing that the work I do is bigger than me. Our GIFs are served on so many platforms including Twitter, Facebook Messenger, Tinder, and Slack, to name a few. And so I actually get to see my work have longevity. Sometimes I'll like a tweet on the internet just because someone used a GIF I produced or created. Seeing the black girls I follow use any of the hundreds of new black girl GIFs I had created reassures me the work I do matters and it's important. The feedback I got from the online community, from so many types of people, when the culture channel launched on GIPHY, was truly one of the most self-assuring moments of my career. And then there's also the dope moments when all of the people, especially the badass women I admire, who I've had content created for share or engage with my work in any way. To see my idea of an illustrated GIF of Issa and Molly from Insecure go from my brain to Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji's liking and engaging with it is so surreal.
"Staying sane is definitely a struggle for me. I'm always constantly worried about messing up. There's a huge pressure that comes with being so vocal on the internet about your work. I'm just one person. I'm not GIPHY, but the internet doesn't always understand that. And I've seen other PoC who work for big media companies get dragged for things they themselves don't have the power to control. Lucky for me, GIPHY is such a forward-thinking company. We're super proactive in listening to our fans and our employees. It's very empowering to work for a company where people not only listen to what you have to say but give you the room to put those words into action. Everything that's trending on Twitter isn't necessarily our space to invade. We respect that. So that helps me stay sane. I also stay sane by having a real life and friends outside of the internet. I block a lot of people! I don't tolerate strangers on the internet talking to me any type of way. I engage on my own terms and I'm super careful about who I chose to follow. I try to make the internet a safe space for myself as much as I can."


People of color are responsible for a majority of the content that goes viral on the Internet. How can they take better advantage of preserving this?
"I'm not really sure I have all of the answers regarding this because this is something I think about often. I think about all of the money Peaches Monroee didn't make from creating the phrase 'on fleek,' and that bothers me a lot. But I'm not sure she could have predicted that phrase going viral to that magnitude. I will say if you are a PoC making content on and for the internet, make sure you claim your work and protect it as much as possible. There are strong examples in creators like Jay Versace and Khadi Don who have created a brand around their work but they also make sure to include their name on their content. You have to give yourself credit and take ownership of your work because the internet can be a real dismissive place. On the other hand, I know for a fact that 'rain drop, drop top' jokes were created by black Twitter, and I'm not sure how we preserve that or give credit other than stating the obvious. I'm quick to tell people 'Netflix and chill' was created by black people long long long ago."