How GIFs Reflect the Internet
The GIF is a concept that most people have interacted with or understand, probably without knowing its origins. While it began as a concept to transmit images over the web, it has evolved into a cultural phenomenon. Even people without understanding how the internet works most likely know how to find and use a GIF to communicate.
In the past decade or so, its usage has exploded in popularity, becoming a new communication tool on the web. Let's explore the origins of the file format and its use in the current internet culture and how they exemplify 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.
In 1987, developers led by Steve Wilhite at CompuServe introduced the GIF (standing for Graphics Interchange Format, pronouncing GIF like Jif) image file format for images. It aimed to compress images (with support for 256 colors) to manageable sizes while minimizing data loss to transmit over slow-speed connections quickly. In the early 1990s, sharing images could be a daunting task due to slow connections. "High speed" 56kbps modems wouldn't arrive until 1997, so downloading even small file size images could take some time.
In its early usage, most GIFs were simple, still color images. Its first boost of popularity would come from its method of compressing data. The specific type of compression known as "L-Z-W" (referring to its creators Lempel, Ziv, and Welch) identified patterns. It reduced them to simpler ones allowing for smaller image sizes. This method would make moving images much smaller than they currently were, making them easier to transmit on slow connections. This would become the first step leading to the popularity of animated GIFs.
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.
This hectic time spurred the development of the PNG format to replace GIF. It aimed to be an unpatented competitor format that developers would use without the risk of it becoming unusable. The original version of the PNG acronym even stood for "PNG's Not GIF". Though it didn't outright replace it, the PNG format has become popular in its own right as a compressed image format that many use today.
The legal battle would continue over the GIF. It is uncertain until 2004 when the final Unisys patent expired. Though they maintain patents on specific aspects of L-Z-W compression, the format remains free to use to this day.
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.
This method soon became a popular way to decorate and add personality to a website. Many homemade sites became popular by using GIFs, and some early viral internet content had GIF usage at its center. Some of this early viral content included the "Hamster Dance" website created in 1998 and the dancing baby GIF ubiquitous with 90's internet.
The "under construction" GIF was a popular 90's GIF acting as a placeholder for unfinished website content.
However, they remained relevant as GIF support had been built into all major web browsers, while there was yet a standard for video within HTML. Soon, however, the file format would find new meaning on the web as a much more powerful tool.
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.
Popular later 2000s websites like Twitter and Tumblr became sharing spaces for the new era of GIFs, directly adding support to their sites. They would prove especially useful as a shorthand communication on Twitter, which famously limited posts to 140 characters. On Tumblr, the file size limit forced users to become creative with what they shared. Rather than video, they chose GIFs with captions embedded, which would eventually become a new standard for GIFs.
This would evolve the format into its current use as a popular form of communication: the GIF reaction. Reaction GIFs are animated images used in place of text to communicate an emotion or response, similar to other internet slang like LOL or emoticons. Communities on sites like Reddit or Tumblr have formed around sharing GIFs and popularizing them.
The ease of sharing, creating, and editing others' GIF creations helped cement the format as a popular way to express creativity. A significant element of GIF sharing was how people could download someone's existing GIF and edit it themselves to have new meaning. This remixing of images is still popular today, with reaction GIFs often repurposed to be relevant to whatever topic is trending on the web.
In 2012, the GIF entered into the Oxford English Dictionary, proving it had indeed shown its popularity in the modern English language. The American Oxford publishers voted it Word of the Year in the same year, calling it "a tool with serious applications including research and journalism."
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.
As a format that sits in the balance between image and video, the GIF remains popular to add a visual element to the text. Where linking a video may require audio and additional time to load, the GIF exists as an easy way to add a visual quickly. Communities on Reddit like /r/educationalgifs/ exist for just this purpose, to find and share interesting educational content that the GIF format can easily communicate. The GIF isn't a one size fits all format, though. Others like JPEG and PNG remain the most popular for sharing still images, especially those which need to stay uncompressed.
While the GIF is the king of animated images, other formats like JPEG and PNG remain the popular format for most web. Still, pictures and images needing background transparency rely on these different formats.
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.
Today the branding of these libraries is seen across the web. Some like Tenor have even been made into app keyboards to easily search for and share on PC or even on iOS. These apps provide new ways for people to enter the world of GIF sharing and have cemented the image format as a standard for communication on the web.
More now than ever, the GIF format is accessible and easy for any user on the internet to understand. Anyone can produce one in a few clicks without any technical knowledge of compression or even the format itself. Tools like EZgif or Imgflip have emerged as GIF makers, easy for anyone to create animated GIFs with just a few still images or even a video.
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.
It shows how when something threatens the nature of the internet. The community can come together to resist. It also communicates the culture of the web. Its usage has evolved from its necessity as a file format to a communication tool that anyone can understand. People have created a GIF for nearly every occasion and emotion.
The GIF has survived 30 years on the internet due to its sleek integration and small file size. They are helpful as a tool to add a video to a webpage without needing audio. The usage of the GIF as a communication tool has been as widespread as ever heading into 2022 and shows no signs of slowing down.
The business of GIFs is booming. As of 2019, the popular GIF sharing site Giphy had roughly 700 million daily users. Hundreds of websites have been created around creating and sharing GIF images. Companies like Gfycat receive millions of dollars in startup funding.
The GIF has proved to be a popular tool for sharing content online. While the GIF remains popular as a communication tool, some internet artists view the file format as a canvas. These artistic GIFs prove to be popular on sites like Tumblr or Reddit, with large communities formed around sharing and advancing their animation craft.
Just as the GIF has adapted to new usages in the modern web, it will find a new home in the future. When the web changes, the use of the GIF will change with it.