How gifs conquered the world
The "Hampster Dance" was one of the most popular early GIFs.
Feeling happy? Sad? Angry? Excited? Chances are, you’ve expressed that sentiment with a GIF.
Today, GIFs are essential to the way we communicate. Every day, more than a billion GIFs are sent through GIPHY—a GIF search engine valued at $600 million — alone.
Now more than 30 years old, the GIF certainly wasn’t initially designed to become an economic powerhouse, a fixture of social interactions, or a form of art—and yet, improbably, it has become all of those things.
“The GIF has really gone through a lot of unexpected reinvention,” said Jason Eppink, the curator of “The GIF Elevator,” an installation of newly commissioned GIFs (some of which you see on this page) at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City.
Throughout its history, Eppink told Industrious, the evolution of the GIF has been driven by shifts in technology, including network speeds, browser capacities, and upload restrictions on popular GIF-sharing websites.
But today the tables are turning, and the success of the GIF is in part responsible for necessitating changes in network technology.
As media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Imgur decide to convert user-uploaded GIF files into MP4 video files—to support faster load times and larger larger files—the popularity of the short loop format is now contributing to the explosive adoption of mobile video. That growth is expected to drive mobile data consumption up 700% by 2021 and push networks to their physical limits. To accommodate the demand, many service providers are virtualizing their networks in the cloud.
The history of the GIF starts with CompuServe, a large information network system that predates the modern internet. In 1987, it released GIF 87a, a format designed to compress multiple images in a way that slow modems could easily load. It took two years before those images could become animated, and it took another six years after that before a web browser, Netscape Navigator 2.0b4, was able to run an animated GIF in a loop.
The GIFs of the late 1990s were used to decorate personal webpages hosted on services like GeoCities, and designed to accommodate the limitations of 56k modems and slow web browsers. According to Eppink, these GIFs typically had small file sizes less than 100K, low resolutions, limited color palettes, and few frames. They had more in common with clip art, he said, than photography.
Some, like the Hamster Dance or the Dancing Banana, had a certain cultural cachet, but many served more utilitarian purposes, like signifying that a webpage was under construction. Generally, they were seen as pretty tacky.
GIFs fell out of favor for a time during the early 2000s as internet users migrated from personal webpages to social media platforms like Facebook, which, Eppink said, resisted GIFs in an effort to craft a “sleek, homogeneous, aesthetic” distinct from that of earlier sites like MySpace and LiveJournal.
But GIFs came back into the spotlight around 2007 with the rise of smartphones, which required “a simple, quick, and more lightweight substitute for Flash animation,” and the introduction of Tumblr, which from the get-go allowed GIFs as large as 500KB. These larger files could support GIFs with photographic images derived from film, TV, and the booming user-generated media of YouTube—including the first celebrity reaction GIFs millions know and love today.
On Tumblr, GIFs weren’t mere ornamentation on a page—they were themselves the destination, worthy of their own wide mainstream audience.
“With Tumblr, for the first time on a major platform, the GIF existed on its own. That’s when it became a real site for innovation and experimentation,” Eppink said.
The social media giants eventually took notice and started embracing GIFs. But by then GIFs were already an unstoppable cultural force. The world had become one big GIF waiting to happen.
GIFS now, GIFs forever
Today, Eppink said, most people can make simple GIFs with the computers they carry around in their pockets, and they can access vast libraries of existing GIFs to use in everyday virtual conversations.
But others, like the animators exhibited at the Museum of the Moving Image, are using the GIF format to create original works of art. They’re attaching their names to them. And they’re driving conversations not explicitly tied to pop culture.
Artists have worked with GIFs from the format’s very beginning, Eppink said, but their work only began appearing in major museums in the 2000s. Now, their rising status in the art world mirrors their elevated status in the culture at large.
“They’re creating these works on their own terms, the way a painter makes a painting and a sculptor makes a sculpture,” he said.
Over 30 years, GIFs have weathered shifting tastes and technologies in a fight to survive. Now, they’re changing our cultural institutions, our networks, and our lives. The battle is over. GIFS have won.