If, for some reason, the Graphical Image Format, or GIF, were ever immortalized with a Hollywood biopic, the narration in the trailer might go something like this: “It started as an innovator, became a joke, and ended up… as a legend.” Yes, those silent, little looping animations that currently dominate social media on multiple platforms (except Facebook) have quite a history, one that might go back as far as the ’70s. Mashable writer Lance Ulanoff, who has been making GIFs himself for 20 years, tells the whole saga in an article called “The Rise And Fall And Rise Of The GIF.”
The story of the humble yet useful GIF really began, Ulanoff reveals, when America’s very first commercial online service, CompuServe, created a new and highly useful image file type based on a compression algorithm created by Sperry Corp. But the GIF would not be confined to CompuServe forever. By the mid-’90s, Ulanoff writes, GIFs became “the de facto graphical image format standard for the burgeoning World Wide Web.” By the end of the grunge decade, GIFs were everywhere, from that creepy 3D dancing baby to tiny little pictures of excavators and tractors meant to indicate that a page was “under construction.” These types of images were especially common on early web platforms like GeoCities.
But as the internet became more sophisticated and sharing full-motion video with sound became commonplace thanks to YouTube, the trusty GIF began to look outdated and silly. Old-school websites with looping animations were seen as tacky relics of the internet’s distant, primitive past. The GIF, it appeared, was finished. As it turned out, however, the file format was just about to experience its greatest period of popularity yet, becoming a staple of Tumblr and Reddit before conquering the web at large. Why? Well, Ulanoff has a number of explanations, including the fact that GIFs are extremely handy for showing sports highlights on social media. Another important factor might have been Tumblr’s initial 1MB upload limitation. This forced users to be creative and use more modest file formats, like GIFs. In doing so, they created a sort of a visual lingua franca for the modern internet age. Now GIFs are just part of the way people communicate online. David Hayes, head of creative strategy for Tumblr, puts it this way: “This is the file format of the internet generation. It’s our vinyl, our compact disc.”