The GIF Turns 30: How an Ancient Format Changed the Internet
The web’s favorite file format just turned 30. Yep, it turns out the GIF is a millennial, too.
At the same time, 30 makes the GIF ancient in web years, which feels a bit weird, given that the proliferation of animated GIFs is a relatively recent phenomenon. Today, Twitter has a GIF button and even Apple added GIF search to its iOS messaging app. Such mainstream approval would have seemed unthinkable even a decade ago, when GIFs had the cultural cachet of blinking text and embedded MIDI files. But today they’re ubiquitous, and not in some nostalgic sense.
Animated GIFs have transcended their obscure 1990s roots to become a key part of day-to-day digital communication. Some, like Orson Welles clapping or Michael Jackson eating popcorn, have become instantly recognizable shorthand. Others, like Sean Spicer disappearing into the bushes—itself a remix of a popular Simpsons GIF—serve up political satire. The GIF does double duty as both expression and as badge of digital literacy. Not bad for an image standard that pre-dates the web itself.
Today GIFs are synonymous with short, looping, animations. But they got their start as a way of displaying still images. Steve Wilhite started work on the Graphics Interchange Format in early 1986. At the time, he was a programmer for Compuserve, an early online service that let users access chat rooms, forums, and information like stock quotes using dial-up modems. Sandy Trevor, Wilhite’s boss at Compuserve, tells WIRED that he wanted to solve two problems.
The first was that Compuserve needed a graphics format that worked on all computers. At the time, the PC market was split between several companies, including Apple, Atari, Commodore, IBM, and Tandy, each with its own way of displaying graphics. Compuserve had used other graphics formats of the era, such as NAPLPS, but Trevor thought they were too complex to implement. So he tasked Wilhite with creating a simple format that would work on any machine.
Second, he wanted Wilhite to create technology that could quickly display sharp images over slow connections. “In the eighties, 1200 baud was high speed,” Trevor says. “Lots of people only had 300 baud modems.” The average broadband connection in the US is more than 40,000 times faster than even those blazing fast 1200 baud connections, so Compuserve needed truly tiny files.
The web’s other major image format, the JPEG, was under development at the time. But it’s better suited for photographs and other images that contain high amounts of detail and won’t suffer from a small amount of distortion. Compuserve needed to display stock quotes, weather maps, and other graphs—simple images that would suffer from having jagged lines. So Wilhite decided to base the GIF on a lossless compression protocol called Lempel–Ziv–Welch, or LZW.
Wilhite finished the first version of the GIF specification on May, 1987, and Compuserve began using the format the next month. This was two years before Sir Tim Berners-Lee announced his World Wide Web project and six years before the Mosiac browser made the web accessible to less technical users. But it was the web that made the GIF what it is today.
The GIF was perfect for displaying logos, line art, and charts on the web for all the same reasons that Wilhite first developed the format. And because portions of an image could be transparent, meaning an image could blend into the background or be fit together with other images in interesting ways, it enabled web designers to create more complex layouts. But the most important thing about the format was that Wilhite had the foresight to make it extensible, so that other developers could add custom types of information to GIFs. That enabled the team behind the Netscape browser to create the animated GIF standard in 1995. “I didn’t ask Steve to put in as much extensibility as he did, but I’m glad he did,” Trevor says.
Soon, “under construction” GIFs adorned practically every site on the web. The “Dancing Baby” becoming one the web’s first true viral video sensations. The dancing 7-Up mascot “Cool Spot” also made a unconscionable number of appearances, making it perhaps the first viral #brand GIF.
The file format also became the center of one of the web’s first patent disputes. In 1994, IT giant Unisys claimed to own the LZW protocol that Wilhite used in the GIF specification. The company threatened to sue anyone who made software that could create or read GIFs without paying for a license. Unisys’s LZW-related patents expired in 2006, but the ordeal of dealing with the company left a lasting impression on Trevor, who now works as a consultant helping tech companies avoid running into patent suits.
The animated GIF epidemic ended about as quickly as it started. As web design professionalized, those under construction GIFs disappeared. Animators and artists, meanwhile, moved on to more sophisticated media like Flash and later HTML5. But the format survived on web forums and sites like 4chan, Reddit, and Tumblr.
Adam Leibsohn, the COO of the GIF search engine Giphy, calls the GIF an “insurgent format.” It enables people to publish moving images in places they weren’t necessarily intended, like someone’s signature on a forum. “The easiest, simplest thing wins,” he says.
As people realized they could stick tiny, looping bits of animation into web-based conversations, GIFs became a new form of expression. Clips of people clapping, slamming their heads on a desk, or dancing replaced text, and new, more artistic GIFs emerged as a form of micro-entertainment. The rise of smartphones made this form of visual communication all the more appealing.
“We’ve reduced our shorthand to things like ‘lol’ and ‘wtf’, things that aren’t very expressive,” says David McIntosh, CEO of the GIF search service Tenor. “With GIFs you can express a wide range of emotions.” About 90 percent of the service’s search terms are related to feelings, he says.
It’s hard to say exactly when the GIF re-entered the mainstream web experience. The Nieman Journalism Lab called the 2012 Summer Olympics a “coming-out party” for the animated GIF. That same year, Oxford Dictionaries named “GIF” the word of the year. By early 2013, GIFs were showing up in museums and marketers wanted in. That year Steve Wilhite was awarded a life-time achievement award at the Webbys, where he stirred up a mini-controversy by telling the world that GIF is pronounced like the peanut butter brand Jif, not like “gift.”
At the time, it was easy to see GIFs as a passing fad, a throwback to the 1990s along with the “soft grunge” trend. It seemed like surely something newer like Vine or Snapchat would replace GIFs. But all these years later, Vine is gone and the GIF is still with us.
Part of that success owes itself to web obsessives, who have built up an enormous inventory of GIF files to choose from. When you want to express dismay or joy or any other emotion, all you have to do is go to Tumblr, Giphy, or Tenor and you can find a ready-made loop. You can think of it as an expansive visual vocabulary built over the years.
And while newer formats might bring more options, Tumblr creative director David Hayes says that the GIF’s technical limitations are actually its strength, not its weakness. After all, artists have long used constraints to spur creativity. “The GIF has constraints that will continue to challenge people,” he says. “You have to make trade-offs with the file size, the frame rate, and the intensity of color.”
Instead of asking what’s next, Hayes says, perhaps we should ask whether the GIF is the end-point for visual language. Let’s give it another 30 years and see what happens.