A History of GIF

Music_NotesGo ahead, laugh at me. I didn’t know what GIF stood for until recently. But I AM a fast learner and catch on really quick. Which means that someone else with a somewhat above average level of intelligence probably didn’t know what it means, either. Lucky for you smart people, Mashable has given us all the information you ever wanted to know, and then some, about GIFs.

“GIF” stands for “graphics interchange format,” a mature name for an image format just coming of age in the digital space (the GIF turned 25 this year). Specifically, Steve Wilhite of Compuserve debuted the GIF in June 1987. The GIF improved on black and white image transfers with 256 colors, while still retaining a compressed format that slow modems could load easily. Using the Graphics Control Extension (GCE), the GIF achieved animation via timed delays.

However, in its infancy the GIF met controversy. Allegedly unbeknownst to Compuserve at the time, the compression technique was patented in 1985 by Unisys. The two companies engaged in a copyright disagreement that carried into 1994, whereupon Unisys announced it would allow commercial properties to license the format for a small fee. In response to the disagreement, many developers vowed to boycott the GIF, preferring the new PNG format (1996), a single-image, patent-free alternative to the GIF.

But the GIF would not be stymied. Early World Wide Web users adopted the GIF when designing their webpages — and for a variety of reasons. Some introduced animated placeholders while constructing their web properties, in the form of blinking construction signs and spinning hard hats. Others preferred a flashy banner at the top of their pages — we remember flames, prowling dinosaurs and rolling eyeballs. (Reads kind of like a horror movie, doesn’t it?)

Whether you call it GIF or JIF, These days, people are less concerned with grammar and more fascinated by the GIF itself. The file format has become a default brand of web humor, alongside impact-font memes and viral YouTube videos.

Graphic artist and photographer Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck, respectively, believe the web has returned to GIFs in a desire for speed. “We like things fast,” they write in an email. “If you have something to say or want to make someone laugh, it’s more effective to give them the immediacy of a GIF than send a link and ask them to watch a video, which they may or may not do. [GIFs] eliminate variables that aren’t important to the core message.”

“I think that we, as artists, have gotten better and better at expressing what we want to show and being more brave about exactly what we want,” says Reed, “and just seeing how our work has evolved from being really simplistic eye blinks and hair GIFs to creating complete worlds now.”

A world of GIFs sounds pretty unbelievable to us. But we’re still loyal to our roots — let’s face it, pixelated bananas and animated dinosaurs will never go extinct.



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