“Choosy programmers choose GIF.” Those are the words of Steve Wilhite, the CompuServe employee who invented the loveable file format in June of 1987. He was making a reference to the compactness of the format (which encoded frames into 8-bit bytes) and the pronunciation (it’s like the peanut butter!). That was 25 years ago this week, and unlike so many other early-Internet inventions, the GIF stuck around. Right now, it’s enjoying a renaissance as the preferred language of the social web (where would Tumblr be without reaction GIFs?).
But if you had told Wilhite that in 2012, the Internet would be in the midst of a love affair with his file format, he probably would have been surprised. The GIF had humble beginnings. You might even say the cards were stacked against it. It supported a limited color palette, and in the beginning, it wasn’t even built for animation. In fact, Wilhite only developed it because traditional image files took forever to transmit through the creeping dial-up connections of the day.
But a few decisive developments during the early Browser Wars made GIFs indispensable. In 1991, developers invented the dedicated img tag in HTML. In English, that meant there was no way to support non-image media files on early versions of Netscape and Internet Explorer. If you wanted something animated, you had to use GIF. Netscape 2.0 also introduced a feature that looped them. This was an important moment: It gave rise to the ubiquitous GeoCities-style GIFs of the early Internet. You could even say that the grating, 8-bit popularity of early animated GIFs—dancing ladies, fireworks, and the dreaded Under Construction—led to its abandonment when cable Internet made it easier to embed video in the early '00s. For a while, GIFs just weren’t cool.
Until they were. Around the same time YouTube was founded (2005), and children of the '80s went off to college, GIFs reappeared. At first, they were mainly a throw-back to the '90s (check out my ironic waving American Flag!), but people started snipping clips from videos and embedding them as smaller, edited GIFs.
As video became the language of the Internet, GIFs became the preferred alternative to embedding YouTube. The same way 4Chan’s Rage Comics distilled emotions into a single reaction image, GIFs distilled the most important parts of longer videos. Memes became the currency of Web 2.0, and GIFs became the preferred way to communicate memes.
You probably know the rest of the story. Tumblr, Ffffound, and Reddit democratized image aggregation, and GIFs remain the most popular way to deliver a punch-line on those sites. GIF-making apps, like Flixel and Cinegram, are making it easier to create your own Instagram-style animations, partially giving rise to "GIF as art." Today, even established photographers use the format.
It’s remarkable that this simple little file format has played such a pivotal role in so many iterations of the Internet, which was still just a couple of networked computers when Wilhite invented it. Today’s Internet would be basically unrecognizable to web users of that era—except for the GIFs, of course.