How GIFs Reflect the Internet

Origins of the GIF

CompuServe developed the GIF file format in 1987. Though CompuServe's founding dates back to 1969, it wasn't until the late 1980s that they found a new focus as an online service provider. CompuServe was one of the first companies to provide this service to users, even earlier than competing services like AOL and Prodigy. They offered paid access to the early internet and provided services like email and news alongside it.

Legal Troubles

Because of its use of L-Z-W compression, a patented process, the GIF's future was soon in doubt. In 1993 the patent holder Unisys began negotiations with CompuServe regarding the cost of licensing the algorithm. Though Unisys decided the cost would only apply to commercial services using the file format like CompuServe, developers were uncertain about the future. As a result, many users and software developers began boycotting the format.

Early Uses of GIF

On the early internet, GIFs were a primary way to incorporate "video" into a website by using a GIF to sequence multiple images into an animation. While the GIF first found popularity in the early internet as still images, their first significant boom was animated pictures. Netscape began supporting the GIF format through their browser in 1995 with Netscape Navigator 2.0, including support for looping animations.

Social Media Explosion

The widespread adoption of social media is responsible for the GIFs second boom. As websites like Myspace and other early social media platforms took off, the GIF resurged with them. Again, it became a popular tool for decorating a personal space or adding animation to your page. Animated images were viral in the Myspace page era, as users were encouraged to decorate their homepages by working directly with the site's HTML.

GIF as a Tool

As an educational tool, GIFs are often seen to compress what would traditionally be videos into short-form content. This can be seen especially in communities like Tumblr or Reddit, where users utilize GIFs to reduce videos to shorter lengths and make them more accessible.

GIF Libraries

With patents expired and the image format more popular than ever, businesses soon began focusing on the field. Websites like Giphy, Tenor and Gfycat recognized the staying power of the GIF and opened as libraries for hosting and sharing these existing animations.

Future of the GIF

So, how does the GIF reflect the internet? For one, it exemplifies the free nature of the web, with users creating and sharing their content. The legal struggle of the GIF and its close call of replacement with the open-source PNG shows this as well. This challenge demonstrates how the internet adapts to adversity.



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A Seattle web design and online marketing agency that delivers high-end websites. A passion for web development and SEO.