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What Makes The GIF Great

In celebration of the internet’s favorite file format, we’re taking you down the rabbit hole of GIF history.

Yesterday the GIF—a favorite birthday missive for many—had a birthday itself. Everyone’s favorite looping file format is now 30 years old—and in those three decades, it has managed to transcend its humble beginnings to become a star format of web communication.

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The 30-year milestone is being celebrated with an IRL art show at New York’s Gallery 151, curated by the GIF database and search engine GIPHY, the creative platform Wallplay, the art organization Rhizome, and the New York-based Transfer Gallery. Titled “Time_Frame,” the show will feature historically significant GIFs and commissioned contemporary GIF art, as well as a weeklong series of talks and workshops beginning on June 17.

The first episode of The Simpsons was in 1989; five years later, this GIF of Homer Simpson became a huge meme and moment in pop culture. The animation, which is often used to express embarrassment, lives on—a recent meme of White House press secretary Sean Spicer backing into the bushes builds on its cultural cachet. [Image: Giphy/ZaharovEvgeniy/iStock (frame)]
Above all, the celebrations will showcase the trajectory of an image format that has become ubiquitous in digital culture, but in fact predates the internet itself. The GIF was invented in 1987 by an engineer named Steve Wilhite, who at the time worked for the internet service provider Compuserve. The early online service needed a simple graphics format that could work on all computers while displaying sharp images over slow connections.

Because Compuserve was also interested in a format that would work well for graphs and stock quotes, it became the go-to format for graphics like logos and line art; meanwhile, JPEG took on photos. In 1994, Geocities launched as a platform for personal websites, and made GIFs available from central libraries.

In 2005, Tom Cruise went on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote War of the Worlds, but ended up wildly proclaiming his love to Katie Holmes. The moment when Cruise jumped onto the couch was shared widely, and was perfect for the looping GIF format. A moment that probably would have been forgotten to history is still fresh in the public consciousness thanks to its GIF form. On the web, it’s often used to express excitement. [Image: Giphy/ZaharovEvgeniy/iStock (frame)]
Key to the GIF’s staying power is that Wilhite made his compression algorithm extensible, meaning that others could build on it to create more complex layouts. In 1995, the team behind the Netscape browser did just that—creating the animated GIF from Wihite’s static format. What started out as simple GIFs like the famed “under construction” animations for websites soon became viral sensations in the ’90s. Chief among them was the “Dancing Baby” GIF that sprung out of Ally McBeal’s hallucinations in the hit TV show of the same name.

The Dancing Baby originated in 1996 with Michael Girard and Robert Lurye, who released the dance file as a product sample to include in the 3D character animation software Character Studio. In the same year, web developer John Woodell created a GIF as a demo of the movie-to-GIF process. The GIF went viral, and in 1998 the baby appeared in the TV show Ally McBeal as the reoccuring hallucination of its titular character. It’s one of the most enduring GIFs of all time. [Image: Giphy/ZaharovEvgeniy/iStock (frame)]
In 1999, the GIF hit a snag when controversy regarding the patent license on the compression format flared up between the IT company Unisys and Compuserve. Although Unisys eventually abandoned its threat to bring suit, GIFs went out of fashion in the early aughts, when JPEGs and PNGs became more popular. Still, they remained popular on web forums like Reddit and Tumblr, and by 2013 they were back in full spring—that year, Oxford Dictionaries named GIF the word of the year.

In 2000, J Lo “broke the internet” with a risqué green Versace gown at the Grammys. So many people searched for her image, Google executive Eric Schmidt cites it as the moment the company recognized the need for Google Image Search. Naturally, the GIF also became a viral meme. [Image: Giphy/ZaharovEvgeniy/iStock (frame)]
As so much of our lives are now lived online, GIFs have become an expressive shorthand—an easy format for reacting or emoting in step with the speed of online communication. They’ve also become a new art form, as GIPHY’s History of the GIF timeline reminds us, with interviews with Net artists like Olia Lialina and Petra Cortright. In web years, 30 is practically ancient, but the simplicity of the GIF format has proven its ability to adapt and evolve along with the internet.

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About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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