GIFs Have Changed The Way We Communicate Forever. Fact.
The Debrief: This simple file format turns 30 today. Happy birthday, GIF!
Though it’s no more than a file format, GIFs are no less than a nuanced visual language that has been key in determining the course of the internet. As the fast-moving, short looped animations turn 30 today it’s worth taking a second to consider how this millennial-aged graphic has impacted the web.
Like photography, GIFs have had a storied journey to recognition. They’ve gone from obscure Tumblr fodder to political commentary, they’ve circumvented the internet’s black hole to being recognised as an art form by the Tate and being deigned a worthy form of political commentary. They are satire in an endless replaying form.
These blinking images are so ubiquitous they’ve launched a thousand websites. Cough Buzzfeed cough Giphy. They’ve become shorthand for emotions and show a knowingness about the web that gets the user clicks of approval. Though the format is simple, GIFs have gone from humorous tidbit to something able to catalyse a viral movement.
Born in 1986 by chat room programmer Steve Wilhite, they were titled Graphics Interchange Format at first. With only JPEGs as competition, GIFs were originally an answer to a desire for sharp digital imagery regardless of how slow one’s online connection was. Notably, Wilhite was working on this two years before the World Wide Web launched and a good six years before www. went mainstream.
It looked like the GIF might be heading for extinction in the early ‘00s when graphic designers started getting their paws on HTML coding. Suddenly, Flash was all the rage and GIFs tumbled into social media obscurity. However, this marked a dawn of a new communication age. Film clips and TV show moments became the fodder for online communication. They emerged as quick-fire entertainment, a visualisation of for feeling. Rather than being indulgent web chatter, they grew to be an appealing force for fun.
‘With GIFs you can express a wide range of emotions.’ David McIntosh, CEO of the GIF search service Tenor told Wired before adding that around 90% of the service's search terms are about feelings.
Media Studies Professor Kelli Marshall agrees that they are free from narrative restrictions – much like early cinema – and so can easily ‘reproduce an experience’ or create a story through juxtaposition to other GIFs.
The New York Times argued that the humble GIF was influential in changing the course of the 2016 US election. From Steven Spicer’s face photoshopped onto a Simpsons graphic to Trump contorting his face, these eye-rolling clips became witty quips for the masses.
‘These miniature movies give you a sense of a candidate, so you can laugh at, or joke with, them,’ said the former chief technology officer for Obama for America Harper Reed to the NYT.
The Oxford English Dictionary entered the word ‘GIF’ into its annals in 2013, and it was around this time that museums and brands started to notice. Pretty soon after Wilhite won a lifetime achievement award at the Webbys and revealed we’ve all been pronouncing it wrong. Supposedly, if you believe the file format’s creator, it’s pronounced with a ‘j’ not a ‘g’, like the cleaning product Jif.
Though the format has grown famous on Reddit and popular on Tumblr, it is really only coming into its own on Facebook today. While Apple has long allowed users to search and send GIFs at the tap of a button, to celebrate the file’s big three-zero birthday, Facebook has only just announced the format can now be used in the comments section of their channel.
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