clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The business of GIFs: then and now

GIFs have been around since the '80s. And as long as there have been GIFs, there have been companies trying to exploit them for profits. Watch this brief history of how the GIF has been used for business over the years:

I became interested in the business of GIFs thanks to a podcast called Reply All. In one episode, they dive into the history of Animation Factory, a website that produced and sold animated GIFs in the '90s and early 2000s.

Spend some time on Animation Factory's website and you may come away confused. There are more than 500,000 animated GIFs, many of which are so bizarre it's hard to imagine why they were ever created in the first place.

But it turns out there was a profitable marketplace for these kinds of GIFs in the late '90s and early 2000s. At that time, there were no professional design standards for the web, so people used GIFs as design elements to decorate their websites.

But as time went on, the internet improved, and blogs with standardized templates appeared. GIFs lost their role as design elements on the internet.

People started making GIFs out of existing video content, using them as a form of expression and humor instead of as a design tool. Places like Tumblr and Reddit accelerated the spread of a GIF renaissance, letting people aggregate, share, and search GIFs.

It wasn't long before companies popped up that attempted to capitalize on this renewed interest in the GIF. Giphy, the largest of the new GIF startups, has raised more than $100 million and is banking on the continued expansion of the GIF renaissance.

Giphy is a GIF search engine as well as a tech product company that is making it easier for people to send and receive GIFs on almost every communication platform. Their goal is to make GIFs accessible and natural to use in communication.

Giphy is still in the pre-revenue stage, but the end goal is to partner with brands, creating GIFs of a brand's content and making them accessible to users who would potentially send branded GIFs to friends and family.

A GIF of Zach Braff making the exact expression you need is useful to you, and Hulu sees this as promoting its show Scrubs. This sort of emotional engagement with branded content is something companies may be willing to pay a lot for.

braff braff

There's no telling how long this new GIF buzz will last. But if venture capital confidence is any measure, there could be promise in the future of a GIF economy. Giphy is valued at $300 million and receives 150 million unique visitors to its site every month. It seems GIFs may be here to stay for a while longer.


Can AI help us predict extreme weather?


UV light kills viruses. Why isn’t it everywhere?


How Michigan explains American politics

View all stories in Video

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.