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The GIF is 30 years old. It didn't just shape the internet — it grew up with the internet.

Here’s how the internet’s favorite image format evolved into a cultural staple.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The GIF is officially 30-something, and in the prime of its internet life.

Three decades ago, on June 15, 1987, the most beloved image file extension on the internet was birthed by a team of CompuServe developers seeking a way to compress images with minimal data loss. The solution: the GIF, a simple, flexible file format for lower-resolution pictures.

My, how far we’ve come since those inauspicious beginnings. These days, the GIF is so ubiquitous as a piece of internet culture that it’s got its own offshoot formats like reaction GIFs, GIF art, and Tumblr GIF sets. The question of how to pronounce the word “GIF” has become a rote topic of cultural debate. (The man who invented the GIF, Steve Wilhite, says it with a soft ‘G,’ like Jif peanut butter, but most people on the internet say it with a hard ‘G,’ because a) it’s more fun, b) it avoids confusion with said brand of peanut butter, and c) come on, it’s Graphical Interchange Format, not Giraffe-ical Interchange Format.)

On the surface, it might sound strange that a file format that has essentially remained unchanged since the ‘90s has managed to outlast so many other kinds of higher-level internet tech, from Flash animation to early JavaScript. But as the blog Enthusiasms notes, “the story of how [the GIF evolved] is really the story of the internet growing up.” It’s simultaneously a tale of how the internet’s design evolution impacted the GIF, and one of how the GIF impacted the internet’s design evolution.

The early days: the internet was under construction, and so was the GIF

Ah, the ‘90s. The internet was awash in garish designs, thanks to websites with noisy wallpaper backgrounds, Comic Sans font, and the ubiquitous Website Under Construction sign. That Under Construction sign, along with many other cute, small animated icons, served as the average human’s introduction to the GIF.

Netscape, Marc Andreessen’s early web browser, reigned supreme for a hot moment in late 1994 and early 1995, just before the advent of Internet Explorer (released along with Windows ‘95) and other competing browsers like Netscape’s eventual successor Firefox. The fate of the GIF was intertwined with Netscape’s early success.

Netscape was the first browser to allow the user to interact with an image on a website instead of just text — meaning you could click on an image and have it link you to another webpage or new information. And when Netscape Navigator 2.0 was released in 1995, it supported the .GIF format, including animated GIFs. Thus, if you wanted an easy way to decorate your website, GIFs, whether static or animated, were simple and available.

Plus, when compared to other file formats, these early GIFs took up very little space on your hard drive and required very little bandwidth to download.

But even back in the ‘90s the GIF was already starting to transcend its workhorse origins. Early viral images like the Dancing Baby and meme-ish GIF-based websites like YTMND (You’re the Man Now, Dawg, a reference to a famous early meme) laid the groundwork for the later GIF-splosion. In fact, though the “Baby Cha-Cha,” as the boogying infant was known to 3-D modelers, began its life as a video in 1996, it wasn’t until developer John Woodell released it as a GIF later that year that its popularity began to spread.

Another early meme was a literal whole page of GIFs — the famous “Hamster Dance” website, created by an art student named Deidre LaCarte in 1998.

Early GIFs revealed two crucial things about the format: It was easy to pass around, and no matter how many frames it contained, it could be looped an infinite number of times, for an infinite supply of delight.

The middle years: spurred on by everything from Flash to YouTube, the GIF slowly evolves

As web design evolved during the early 2000s, the GIF largely fell out of favor except among meme fans, due to the popular conception that GIFs were tacky and garish. (At that point in the GIF’s history, popular conception wasn’t exactly wrong.) The emergence of Flash animation, JavaScript, and other more sophisticated tools for transmitting video and images online outstripped the GIF’s usefulness.

Still, the GIF remained a useful way to transmit early memes and replicate Flash-based animation — like the 2001 Dancing Banana from the famous Flash animation Peanut Butter Jelly Time.

Throughout the mid-2000s, the concept of “Web 2.0” was the reigning approach to web design. Flash was beginning to falter under the weight of its own clunky load time and the public’s dislike of splash pages — those time-consuming, graphics-heavy “front doors” to websites that would take forever to load and which didn’t always allow you to navigate freely on the corresponding website. Web 2.0 coincided with the advent of Google, Wikipedia, and the first social media platforms — MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube, which all debuted between 2003 and 2005. It emphasized less Flash-heavy design, better load times, and more elegant, prettier web pages.

Smartphones, like the iPhone prototype that first appeared in 2005, were beginning to emerge, and their operating systems and early mobile browsers required more portable, lightweight web design and image handling, which would eventually shift the “Web 2.0” movement into an emphasis on responsive cross-platform design.

By 2004, all of the existing patents on licensing for the GIF had expired, and the format essentially entered the public domain. The combination of fewer legal restrictions on the GIF and a broader, smartphone-boosted demand for a simple, quick, and more lightweight substitute for Flash animation brought the GIF back in a major way. GIF editing was becoming more advanced thanks to the growing accessibility of editing software like Photoshop, and people were beginning to convert video into GIF formats in order to quickly present video images.

Meanwhile, the advent of YouTube in 2005 had begun to spur the confluence of meme culture with emerging vlogger culture and celebrity culture, and the GIF was there to capture it all. A classic example: 2007’s “Leave Britney Alone” meme, which gave us a famous proto-reaction GIF:

These early video-to-GIF viral memes paved the way for the deluge of celebrity reaction GIFs in our future.

The modern era: reaction GIFs explode across the internet — and GIFs become an art form unto themselves

And then came the onset of social media, and lo, GIFs were everywhere.

Reddit, Twitter, and Tumblr launched in 2005, 2006, and 2007 respectively, and each of them played major roles in shifting the culture of social media toward the use of GIFs — especially the image-friendly Tumblr, where GIFs could be uploaded in sets of up to 10 images at once. On Tumblr, GIF sets were frequently elaborate, and people used them to tell stories or encapsulate and circulate current news.

GIFs could also be easily embedded into the text of Tumblr posts or added to a “reblog” in order to react to an earlier poster’s thoughts. And on Reddit, entire subforums arose that were devoted to sharing the perfect reaction GIF or the perfect video moment in GIF form.

Historically, the animated GIF could be a static image or series of static images looped continuously, looped only once, or looped as many or as few times as the user desired. While it’s always been true that GIFs could be looped infinitely or not looped at all, but the modern GIF is generally looped infinitely by default. The infinite loop has become a crucial part of its social function, and advances the GIF’s role in allowing viral videos to spread more easily across the internet in meme form.

And today, it’s relatively easy for the average internet user to screengrab video or still images as GIFS and convert, edit, and add text and additional imagery to them. There are even services that automate the process, allowing GIFs to be more portable and versatile as they travel the web.

Another crucial aspect of the modern GIF is its nature as a quick, all-purpose form of expression. “MFW/TFW” (“My Face/That Feeling When”) and “MRW” (“My Reaction When”) have become standard parts of internet lingo that precede the use of a reaction GIF. And while basically any GIF can be a reaction GIF, some GIFs have become so well known as reaction GIFs that they’ve essentially entered the cultural lexicon.

Reaction GIFs are so broadly recognized as fundamental parts of expression on social media that modern social media platforms, from Twitter to Slack, now support GIF searches through third-party GIF platforms like Giphy and Gfycat. Meanwhile, innumerable smartphone apps support the sending of GIFs through texts.

Finally, the modern era of GIFs has also seen the emergence of GIF artists — particularly on Tumblr, where people have made inroads in animated art while forming a complex and unique community. In 2013, Tumblr chose GIF artist and game designer Roger Von Biersborn as its first artist in residence, inviting him to create original art for the site.

Tumblr user Ofsparrows has gained a following for her detailed and elaborate animated GIF illustration.
Ofsparrows / Tumblr

At the same time, more retro movements like the Glitch and Vaporwave art movements combine the GIF with the classic pixelation of the early internet to create a unique kind of magic.

Similar to the GIF art on Tumblr is a form of GIF art called the “Cinemagraph,” a popular style of Instagram art begun by photographers Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck which attempts to create high-level GIF photography.


The GIF evolution is tied to the future of the internet

In 1987, it’s highly unlikely that anyone imagined what a broad range and role the GIF would play in modern internet culture. But as the internet has evolved, the GIF has shown a surprising ability to evolve with it. It’s this durability, flexibility, and — let’s face it — just a touch of kitsch that has allowed the GIF to become the internet’s primary purveyor of memes and looping pictures.

So where will the GIF take us from here? History would suggest that the future of the GIF will depend on how the internet itself evolves. Notably, Tumblr, Twitter, and Reddit, the current drivers of GIF culture, are all struggling to attain sustainability — and as we saw in the case of Vine, some kinds of internet art can’t outlive the death of a platform that birthed the culture surrounding them.

But the GIF would seem to be here to stay. Technologically speaking, it’s portable and durable. Perhaps more importantly, it’s also expressive and fun. It has hopped from platform to platform for three decades without stopping, and remained popular in its highest and lowest resolutions, whether animated or cinematic, ironic or sincere.

So GIF on, internet. Here’s to another 30 years.

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