How often do you send a GIF to a friend or a colleague to express your feelings about something? Well, it is true that GIFs can come in handy to convey a specific emotion and make your dialogue funnier thanks to auto-playing animated clips taken from our favorite movies, series, and TV shows. In this article, we dig into the history of GIFs and try to lift the veil of mystery: how GIFs became the symbol of Internet humor.
Even though it seems that GIFs is a novelty, it has been with us for more than 30 years. This format, Graphics Interchange Format, was launched in 1987 by the CompuServe team and the first picture, according to its creators was an airplane. They got inspired by the American programmer Terry Welch’s article in Computer magazine about the LZW compression algorithm. This Lempel-Ziv-Welch technique could reduce color visuals in size without impairing their quality. This way, GIF was the most compact graphic format and became the most convenient way to transmit color digital graphics with a slow dial-up connection these days. At these times GIFs were just practical and no one would imagine that they were going to become the humorous way of digital communication in the XXI century. Some old prototypes of today’s GIFs are still available to view: the dancing baby or the banana.
When CompuServe created GIF, its inventors had no idea that the patent for the compression algorithm already belonged to Unisys company. No one expected such a fast spread of the format, and a few years later, Unisys and CompuServe agreed to sell the license for the format together to those who used it for commercial purposes. In 1994, this caused outrage among Internet users: by that time, GIF had long since become the standard format. However, JPEG had already begun to replace it, and PNG had appeared largely due to Unisys and CompuServe’s new license regulations.
For the next decade, companies were trying to get the most out of the new format they invented but all for nothing, and the patent expired by the mid-2000s. At the same time, GIF started to reappear in a form of comic animation on internet communities, such as Tumblr and Reddit. An image hosting service Imgur also played a huge part in GIF popularization. In 2012 “gif” was named Oxford Dictionaries’ USA Word of The Year, and this is when the most well-known gif platform GIPHY was launched.
Dr. Sarah Thornton, a San Francisco-based sociologist explains GIFs success in the interview to BBC saying that ” They’re lingua franca. They’re not determined by linguistic boundaries, and they are so simple that a child can understand them”. And this seems to be really so. Today, after 34 years since gif format exists, it is still one of the best forms to express your feelings on the internet. And it copes with this task better than the video partly because nowadays internet users prefer to see the looping image instantly instead of clicking the Play button.