It may be a hopelessly outdated, obsolete, low resolution image format, but the way people use GIFs probably encapsulates net culture more than anything else.
From reactions and memes to highbrow art, GIFs have come a long way since 87a.
GIFs were originally invented by Steve Wilhite while working at Compuserve as a lossy image format that allowed fairly large images to be downloaded in a relatively short time, even on the painfully slow modems of the time.
The files boast an epic 256 colour palette in a whopping 8 bit resolution. The thing that really makes GIFs special is that they can contain multiple images. Originally this was meant for file transfer efficiency but it quickly became apparent this feature could be used for animation.
The format quickly became ubiquitous, adding flair to early websites – animated logos, flashing ‘under construction’ signs – the possibilities were endless.
And so, the world was granted this GIF.
When MySpace took social networking mainstream, GIFs enjoyed a burst of popularity as competition between teenage girls to have the most glittery, motion-sickness-inducing profile reached bursting point. Animation was the digital equivalent of having the best troll pencil topper.
Then Facebook took the social media crown by being better than MySpace in so many ways. Maybe GIFs had long been a pet peeve of Zuckerberg’s, or maybe he just thought nobody wanted them anymore; for whatever reason, Facebook nearly killed the animated GIF by not supporting it (though there is a way round it).
GIFs started making their comeback around 2006-2008 when more GIF-friendly community platforms started sprouting up – particularly Tumblr, which tapped into the same arty-silly-funny millennial meme culture the first wave of MySpace did (but better). Tumblr’s reblogging meant GIFs spread quickly, becoming memes of their own.
The format went mainstream in 2012. Buzzfeed used animated GIFs to report on the 2012 Olympics, prompting other respectable online publications to start using them. And nothing says ‘officially mainstream’ like becoming a verb: ‘gif’ (verb) was named Oxford American Dictionaries’ word of the year.
GIFs had gone legit.
The GIF renaissance has been so powerful that animated GIFs are now an official snob-sanctioned artform, and have probably taken pride of place over Photoshop humour as the number one cultural expression of the internet (if something so nebulous can be said to express).
In hindsight, the animated GIF exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery might prove to be the shark-jump of GIF culture. But the day GIFs lose their popularity would probably be the day cats stop being adorable.
GIF credits (in order of appearance):