the gif that keeps on gifing: celebrating 30 years of our favorite file format.
june 15, 2017 kristin johnson
From MySpace, to Tumblr, to deserving its own keyboard, graphics interchange format (GIF) has completely won the internet over. Today, the GIF is celebrating its 30th anniversary (yes, it’s a millennial) and we’re celebrating accordingly.
settling the GIF/JIF debate
First things first: is it pronounced GIF or JIF?! We’re not sure this one will ever be settled. Inventor Steve Wilhite claims it’s with a soft “g” in the familiar phrase, “Choosy developers choose GIF,” referencing the Jif peanut butter slogan. But many pronounce GIF with a hard “g,” in accordance with the “g” in graphics interchange format. Moral of the story? Keep on pronouncing it however you please, since you now have an argument for both sides.
While the GIF seems to be a fairly recent phenomenon, it’s ancient in web years. The first GIF was introduced to the world in 1987 by Compuserve—including Alexander Trevor, former chief technical officer, and inventor Steve Wilhite. The first successful GIF was a picture of a plane. The compressed format was ideal for performing image transfers across a slow modem connection and also allowed for color.
Later that year, they released a new version of the GIF called 87a. This allowed users to create compressed animations using timed delays. According to Wilhite, the GIF has been able to hang around so long because of its animation loop that Netscape added in 1998.
Anytime you look inside a GIF file, you’ll see a reference to Netscape Navigator: a browser that has been obsolete for 15 years, but that introduced a slew of new features like embedded Java and animated GIFs.
Here’s a look at how the GIF continued to transform by decade:
1990s: Classic animations with transparent backgrounds. Created on computers, they could be used in many graphical contexts.
2000s: Large and motionless gilttering graphics emerge using MySpace, Tumblr or other similar social networks.
Today: Looped sequences made from video, TV shows or movies, not integrated into the page design surrounding it. Users can now easily create GIFs on mobile devices.
What’s the big deal?
Not only is a GIF the most versatile image format, but it’s simply easier to be funny with a GIF than with your own words. Alongside memes, it has become the default brand of web humor allowing us to accurately (and hilariously) depict basic things that we all experience on a regular basis.
In GIF’s infancy, web developers used GIFs because they required little bandwidth compared to videos. But there was no element of conversation. Today, high speed internet has allowed them to function as instantaneous film clips that have taken over social media. And they’re more than chuckling babies and dancing pigs. Users can now easily create, share and become part of a larger community. The bite-sized pieces of content are easy to consume and even more shareable. And let’s be honest, they never get old.
Due to its tendency to evolve, the GIF is now also supported like never before. Twitter enabled GIFs to be embedded on homepages, Giphy has gained tons of popularity and platforms for sharing GIFs (like Facebook and Tumblr) have since gone through the roof.
The future of GIFS
In 30 years, the GIF has taken on multiple forms since its inception. After Wilhite retired and passed away, the company was later bought by AOL, allowing the GIF patents to expire and be open to the public domain. And we certainly ran with it.
We expect even more to change in the world of GIFs—especially now that anyone with a cell phone can turn anything and everything into an animation. While many fear that the GIF is moving too far away from its roots, popular mobile applications like GIF Shop, Flixel and Cinemagram make it easy to become a self-proclaimed GIF artist. Google even added an animated GIF filter for image searching. It doesn’t stop here, and we’re excited to see how the animation continues to evolve over time.