How the GIF Changed the Internet

It’s safe to say that most of us don’t go a day on the internet without running across at least one GIF. From text messages to Facebook updates, GIFs are everywhere. We use them to make a point in work emails, to share a joke with a friend, and even to liven up research papers. They’ve become part of the climate of the modern internet.

This makes it all the more surprising to realize that there was a time, not so long ago, when the GIF was viewed as a relic of the early days of the internet, and it was widely assumed that it was on its way out. But the GIF would surprise us all. In this article, we explore the unlikely origins of the internet’s favorite graphic—and its unexpected second act.

Where the GIF Came From
  • Who invented the GIF? The GIF was developed by a Compuserve programmer named Steve Wilhite in 1986, and first unveiled to the world in the summer of 1987. There were a number of things about the GIF that made it radically different than any other graphic format in use at the time. Unlike other formats, it could be used on any type of computer. The GIF was designed to be tiny enough that it would load quickly even on slow connection. Most importantly, it compressed a great deal of data into a single file. One important difference from today’s GIFs is that the first GIFs didn’t usually move—they were still images. Just like today’s GIFs, though, the first GIFs could use up to 256 distinct colors.
  • Who owns the GIF? The earliest GIFs were owned and copyrighted by the company that had developed them, Compuserve. The company ran into trouble, however, when it turned out that the software company Unisys owned the rights to the compression method used by the GIF. In the ensuing legal battle, Unisys claimed the right to charge anybody who wanted to use the GIF in their software—which led to the creation of an alternative format called the PNG. (An early version of the PNG was called the PING, which stood for “PING is not GIF.”)
  • When did moving GIFs come about? Moving GIFs were introduced by the now-defunct web browser Netscape in 1995. GIFs became a popular graphic format on the earliest websites, which often sported moving images like marching dinosaurs and dancing bananas. But the ongoing legal struggle over the format’s ownership stymied programmers who wanted to use the GIF, and the once-revolutionary format seemed on the verge of extinction.
How the Internet Reinvented the GIF
  • An uncertain future. In 2004, Unisys’s patent on the compressing technique that underpinned the format expired, and the GIF could be used by anyone. It remained an open question, however, whether anyone would actually continue using GIFs. Computer graphics had come a long way since 1987, and the GIF seemed comparatively primitive.
  • An unexpected comeback. It was the GIF’s very simplicity, however, that allowed it to slip back into our lives. The GIF began popping up on popular online forums such as Reddit, where people began tossing their favorite GIFs into discussions. By then, the GIF was old-fashioned enough that its use seemed playful and ironic, like references to ’80s music or old NES games. In this new context, the GIF suddenly seemed to have limitless potential. A single looping image could be used to express almost any emotion in a funny and memorable way.
  • A new era. The decade we’re living through might well be called the era of the GIF, because use of the format exploded after 2010. As more people began using smartphones and communicating through text messages, the GIF went from obscure to inescapable. Everybody had their favorite GIF, whether it was Michael Jackson eagerly scarfing popcorn, Orson Welles sullenly clapping, or Homer Simpson slowly disappearing into a bush. The Oxford Dictionary even named GIF its American word of 2012.
  • A lingering question. For today’s millennials, GIFs are as essential to conversation as language itself. One maddening question, however, continues to dog the GIF: How do you pronounce it? One clue might lie in the name itself: GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format. Does the word use a hard G, like the one in “graphics”? Not according to the creator, Steve Wilhite, who says that the word should be pronounced with a soft G, like the one in “gym.” No matter how you choose to say it, there’s only one GIF—and it’s safe to say it isn’t going away any time soon.

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About the Author

Justyn - Digital Marketing Manager, Special Projects
Justyn Dillingham

Digital Marketing Manager, Special Projects

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