In fact, “GIF” stands for “graphics interchange format,” a mature name for an image format just coming of age in the digital space (the GIF turned 25 this year). Specifically, Steve Wilhite of Compuserve debuted the GIF in June 1987. The GIF improved on black and white image transfers with 256 colors, while still retaining a compressed format that slow modems could load easily. Using the Graphics Control Extension (GCE), the GIF achieved animation via timed delays.
However, in its infancy the GIF met controversy. Allegedly unbeknownst to Compuserve at the time, the compression technique was patented in 1985 by Unisys. The two companies engaged in a copyright disagreement that carried into 1994, whereupon Unisys announced it would allow commercial properties to license the format for a small fee. In response to the disagreement, many developers vowed to boycott the GIF, preferring the new PNG format (1996), a single-image, patent-free alternative to the GIF.
But the GIF would not be stymied. Early World Wide Web users adopted the GIF when designing their webpages — and for a variety of reasons. Some introduced these animated placeholders while constructing their web properties, in the form of blinking construction signs and spinning hard hats. Others preferred a flashy banner at the top of their pages — we remember flames, prowling dinosaurs and rolling eyeballs. (Reads kind of like a horror movie, don’t it?)
From its early days, the GIF had an inherent element of fun. Remember the dancing banana? Well, it was inspired by a Flash music video created for the Buckwheat Boyz’s song “Peanut Butter Jelly Time.” Soon, the Internet appropriated the banana GIF as its own. Some forums replaced the code :banana: with the groovy dancing GIF. And of course Family Guy couldn’t stay mum, either.
Regardless of the specific animation, web designers and engineers trusted the GIF’s compressed file size to load on early 56k modems and outdated web browsers. On early webpages, the average two-minute YouTubeembed would have required about 40 minutes of buffering. So instead, people rocked the eyeballs and dinosaurs.
As the creator of the GIF, Wilhite reportedly had something to say about its pronunciation, too. Many assume “GIF” is pronounced with a hard “g,” in accordance with the pronunciation of the first word in “graphics interchange format.” However, creator Wilhite and other Compuserve staff often responded to the claim with a cheeky yet familiar phrase: “Choosy developers choose GIF,” referencing the slogan for Jif peanut butter. Still, the debate rages on Reddit, YouTube and even dedicated websites. According to a Los Angeles Timessurveyof 1,155 people, 65% go with the hard “g.” But that’s certainly no landslide.
These days, people are less concerned with grammar and more fascinated by the GIF itself. The file format has become a default brand of web humor, alongside impact-font memes and viral YouTube videos.
Attempting to Walk After a Cycling Class
Popular Tumblr What Should We Call Me helped pioneer the GIF as a means of interpersonal communication. The blog’s two anonymous creators and best friends used GIFs to stay in touch when they moved to opposite U.S. coasts for law school. The GIFs reflect their moods, the situations they find themselves in and the everyday trials of the 24-year-old female college student. Think self-deprecating body image, drunken girl drama and financial insecurity.
The kicker? It’s all side-splitting hilarious.
Take the GIF at right, for example. It’s one of many that the WSWCM creators found on the web and paired with an entirely unrelated yet germane phrase. Another GIFshows a cat closing the bathroom door, alongside the caption, “When my boyfriend tries to shower with me but I feel too fat.” Aside from cats, the blog also draws heavily on TV culture, borrowing from Arrested Development,Jersey Shore, Real Housewives and Summer Heights High. (This is what happens “when my best friend says she wants to get back together with her ex.”)
“It’s nice to know that you’re not the only person who struggles to get out of bed in the morning, isn’t it?” one ofWSWCM‘s creators tellsForbes. “It’s so funny that our sense of humor has put its finger on these things that everyone experiences, very basic things, but don’t necessarily talk about them.”
The blog is uniquely Millennial for two reasons: for its accurate depiction of the 20-something female psyche and for engineering a new form of communication — the storytelling GIF. We use (read: hunt down) these types of GIFs as kicky, one-liner responses to all kinds of web conversations. Our tweets and Gchat windows are filled with GIFs, often accompanied by very little context. Example:
The interaction would look foreign to many outside the Millennial age bracket, but blogs like WSWCM are paving the way for such tightly packaged, cheerful communication. They’ve written the recipe, and GIFs are the ingredients.
As one-half of artist duo Reed + Rader, Matthew Rader believes the GIF fits extraordinarily in a web environment that never takes itself too seriously. “I think that animated GIFs are the true artistic medium of Internet,” he says, “[which] has an inherent sense silliness and playfulness and fun in the culture already.”
Business team and real-life couple Pamela Reed and Matthew Rader began their careers as photographers, and up until six or seven years ago, their work paid the bills. But as print layouts and advertorials moved online, they needed to adapt. Soon after, they made the decision to quit working with still images entirely.
“We started to think about, ‘Why aren’t we making work for this community [the Internet] that we love and get inspired by all of the time?’” explains Reed.
When asked how he would convey a GIF to someone unfamiliar with the format, Rader replies, “Blinky, flashy animated graphics on the Internet, usually stuff that’s silly. There’s probably not a person who has ever used the Internet that hasn’t seen a GIF, whether they know it or not.” However, when I asked him how he explains his profession to his family, he replies, “It’s impossible.”
In 2008, they completed their first fashion editorial for Pop, in which still models hold mini, spinning GIFs of avant garde clowns. Their edgy, unapologetic approach to fashion quickly earned them notoriety. Now they work with brands like Victoria’s Secret to create innovative, custom web content — all of which revolves around GIFs.
But fashion wasn’t always so receptive. “Their websites were always kind of horrible to start,” says Rader, referencing the mid-aughts. “Maybe if you were lucky, you would get stills from the magazine and maybe if you were super lucky, a PDF or something like that. But they weren’t really considering the Internet as a valuable place for custom content.”
It wasn’t until 2006-2008, when Millennials started re-embracing the GIF, that brands and media outlets started taking notice of the catalyzing nature of the format. Young people fueled the impetus of the GIF that we’re experiencing all around us today.
Rader attributes the resurgence to GIF-friendly platforms and communities like Tumblr, which incidentally, was created by a Millennial with his peers in mind.
Others, like graphic artist and photographer Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck, respectively, believe the web has returned to GIFs in a desire for speed. “We like things fast,” they write in an email. “If you have something to say or want to make someone laugh, it’s more effective to give them the immediacy of a GIF than send a link and ask them to watch a video, which they may or may not do. [GIFs] eliminate variables that aren’t important to the core message.”
But it was precisely the GIF’s limitations that inspired this pair’s work. They created and brandedcinemagraphs (above), which fall somewhere between a still image and a lively GIF. By isolating and freezing large portions of the image file, they can select very specific areas to animate. The result is a beautiful, large, pixelated GIF that nonetheless uses a reduced file size.
“You have to be economic in how you use what is available to you,” they explain.
Those design limitations, they add, have democratized the GIF-making process, leading to what many refer to as the “GIF movement” we’re experiencing today. However, more isn’t always better. “With GIF-making tools more available and widely used, there’s a possibility of oversaturating the Internet with GIFs for the sake of GIFs,” they write. “Our belief is that if something has movement, there should be a reason behind it, not simply to make a GIF because right now the Internet loves GIFs.”
Their goal along with many others is to reimagine GIFs in new ways — beyond Tina Fey photobombs andreaction GIFs. Cinemagraphs accomplish that with minimalist yet lifelike closed-loop animations, which make the viewer feel as if she were peeking into an intimate, otherworldly scene.
The GIF movement has led to some truly profound pieces of art, much of which is interactive. Reed and Rader have begun generating entire 3D GIF worlds that move and react. They experiment with “wiggles,” stereoscopic GIFs that enhance the illusion of depth. One of their latest projects, called “Squiddies,” (above) combines photography and 3D scans of people’s heads, set on an interactive background scene. You can move your mouse around the image to manipulate the scene. The animated GIF collage (of sorts) looks like Nightmare Before Christmas meets Rocky Horror Picture Show — spooky yet playful.
“I think that we, as artists, have gotten better and better at expressing what we want to show and being more brave about exactly what we want,” says Reed, “and just seeing how our work has evolved from being really simplistic eye blinks and hair GIFs to creating complete worlds now.”
A world of GIFs sounds pretty unbelievable to us. But we’re still loyal to our roots — let’s face it, pixelated bananas and animated dinosaurs will never go extinct.