The Backstory of the Animated Gif
If you can believe it, our favorite internet image turned 30 in 2017. Crazy right? The GIF has led us into a new age of photo sharing by bringing an entirely new level of emotion and storytelling to what we see on online. GIF’s make us laugh, cry, and just about everything in between.
It’s hard to imagine life without the animated GIF, but prior to 1987 that’s exactly the type of world we lived in. That was, at least, before a man named Steve Wilhite and his team at CompuServe began work on a project to somehow display a computer image on a screen while saving memory at the same time. After all, computers weren’t the fastest back then. Additionally this proposed file format had to be readable across a variety of PC machines — a pretty important issue in the days before the World Wide Web where an Intel machine may not speak the same lingo as a Commodore. Computers back then were a bit, well, slow.
The First Animated Gif
The solution? A sophisticated compression algorithm that was combined with image parameters like the number of available colors (256). This allowed an image to be easily exchanged between various brands of computers, hence the name Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF for short.
While the JPEG image format was still in development at the time, the GIF was a perfect image for what the PC computer market needed, and not to mention fun. Two years later the World Wide Web was announced and the GIF was given yet another amazing platform to thrive — and thrive it did.
The rise of the GIF
During the growth of the internet, the GIF became a popular format for web developers to insert images, line art, and charts into their sites. Additionally the format was extensible, meaning that Wilhite allowed web developers to add custom types of information to GIFS, further improving their use.
As the use of GIF grew, so did the places you would see it. A popular place for web developers to insert a GIF became any pages that were “under construction”. The first viral GIF was the well-known dancing baby for one of these same pages. We all remember that dancing baby.
Software developer Mike Battilana wrote: “GIF soon became a world standard, and also played an important role in the Internet community. Many developers wrote (or acquired under license) software supporting GIF without even needing to know that a company named CompuServe existed”
The GIF party was alive and well, but it wasn’t long before things had to hit the brakes.
The almost-downfall of the GIF
In 1991, Unisys, a major technology company at the time, claimed to own the algorithm for the GIF leveraged in its development, and they wanted a piece of the action — implementing a licensing fee for any format using their algorithm (including TIFF, PDF, and GIF). These patents didn’t expire until 2003-2006, during which left GIF format a bit shaken. Additionally during that that time, web developers had started to use more sophisticated imaging like Flash and HTML5, reducing the use of the GIF even more.
Miraculously, the GIF format continued to thrive with internet junkies and on online forums such as Reddit and Tumblr who continued to use them within posts and in messages. It turns out all was not lost afterall.
Making a cultural comeback
As the internet continued to grow, more people realized the true potential of GIFS — their simplicity. With GIFs, Sad Michael Jordan’s, and emojis, and just about anything you wanted could be inserted with ease into internet conversations and provide an entirely new level of emotion to the conversation without adding too much data. They were simple to make, and simple to react to.
Adam Leibsohn, the CEO of the GIF search engine Giphy, called the GIF an “insurgent format”. By allowing people to place short animation emotion to just about anywhere on the internet, it opened up doors for it’s use. “The easiest, simplist thing wins”, he says.
Around 2003, Wilhite received a lifetime achievement Webby for his work on the GIF, further proving the ubiquitousness of the format and effectively becoming the equivalent of an internet BOSS.
SIDE NOTE: Pronouncing GIF: The debate continues
The pronunciation of GIF has been widely debated on the internet for years. For the record (and for those who care) Wilhite pronounces GIF with a soft ‘g’ similar to a well-known peanut butter brand. He even jokes that “Choosy developers choose GIF” as a play off of the well-known ad campaigns from a well-known peanut butter brand. However many digital natives prefer the alternate pronunciation with the hard “g” similar to saying the word gift without the t.
Our stance? We’re fine with whatev’s.
Sharing and printing animated GIFs with Lifeprint
For those of you who consider yourself animated GIF power users, Animated GIFs have been a staple of your online persona — easily shared via an email, forum post, or instant message. Nothing sums up your feelings like a well placed meme or animated GIF. Yet there are now new ways to bring your favorite animated GIFs from the digital world, to the physical world.
Lifeprint brings photos into the new millenium, merging the old with the new. Simply select any video, photo, or Animated Gif and send to print. You call it magic, we call it a Hyperphoto. No matter who you are, seeing your printed memories come to life will blow your mind.
Get out there and GIF.
So there you have it! Next time you’re looking for that extra piece of internet flair for your next message, post, email or printed photo, don’t forget about the good ol’ GIF and its long journey from groundbreaking internet image to pop-culture staple.