The inescapable media of the modern internet landscape, the GIF, has been around for more years than most people realize or care to admit. It even predates the internet as we know it, having existed in its early conception on self-contained networks.

We all use them on a daily basis, but how much do we really know about GIFs? Seeing as how we can’t even agree on the proper pronunciation of the term (it’s hard a “g”, as in “gift”), it’s safe to assume that you’re about to learn a whole lot about the most ubiquitous internet format ever.

The early internet invention

On June 15, 1987, Steve Wilhite was about to create the single most precious format for all of future internet dwellers. Graphical Interchange Format, GIF for short, was a result of CompuServe, Wilhite’s employer, wanting a small graphic file that was easy to transfer while maintaining the same level of image quality.

Using the Lempel-Ziv-Welch protocol, Wilhite ensured lossless compression of image files, reducing their size and keeping quality at original, pre-compression levels. In 1989, he further updated the format to allow animation delays and one transparent color. Effectively, this meant that GIFs no longer had to be rectangular, since transparency allowed for different shapes and outlines to exist.

This was the first ever GIF.
This was the first ever GIF.

For all their contemporary cultural relevance, GIFs weren’t a big deal back in the ‘80s. CompuServe and Wilhite made the format more accessible to users by providing downloadable conversion utilities, but it wasn’t until the advent of the internet in the ‘90s and the emergence of the Netscape 2.0 web browser in 1995 that GIFs took off.

Netscape 2.0 was the first browser that allowed for the use of animated GIFs and made it possible to loop them. It was also the first browser to support JavaScript, making quite an impact and establishing the internet as we know it today.

Unfortunately, the history of GIFs is marred with patent issues and struggles for the impractical ownership of the format. As it turned out, a company by the name of Unysis had patented the Lempel-Ziv-Welch compression protocol that GIFs relied on. Nobody was aware of that fact as GIFs had become a commonplace internet format for all of the internet. Unysis tried to charge fees to companies and developers using GIFs, which led to quite an outrage.

Interestingly, that’s exactly how the PNG format came to be. Some of the developers simply decided they would create their own format to bypass Unysis’ stranglehold on GIFs. The PNG format — initially known as PING, short for “Ping is not GIF” — was basically the same as the contentious format with a couple of exceptions.

Others were not so creative in their outrage against patent claims, leading to the infamous Burn All GIFs movement in 1999. Suffice it to say that GIFs survived the purge, and in 2004, Unysis lost its claim to the compression protocol and GIFs were once again in the public domain.

Evolution of the format

Strictly technically speaking, GIFs haven’t evolved that much as a format since their inception in 1987. The last major update to the format was in 1989 when animation delays and transparency were introduced. Since then, the format has remained more or less the same. Its importance on the web, however, has waxed and waned with other technological developments.

At the turn of the millennium, there were new and better image formats such as JPEG. Both JPEG and PNG used more advanced compression schemes, allowed for more than the basic 256 color palette that GIFs had, and those were only some of the improvements.

At the same time, Flash was making huge waves as it offered a more advanced way of making videos — and at higher quality. However, Flash proved to be quite resource-heavy and was accompanied by very long load times. It was hardly the revolution it was believed to be, and the internet was more than willing to give up on it.

In the end, it was two things that caused the resurgence of GIFS and paved the way for the next and the most important stage of its evolution: social media and smartphones. The emergence of social media networks such as Facebook and Reddit, alongside the advent of smartphones, made Flash obsolete and provided a way for GIFs to become culturally relevant again. YouTube, Google, Tumblr and Wikipedia all had a say in this as well. None of the tech-giants-to-be wanted anything to do with a sluggish Flash. GIFs were back, and they were ready to become pillars of internet culture once again.

Send me a GIF

GIFs were everything that simple textual communication wasn’t. At that time, texts had already devolved to “lols” and “rofls.” It was no longer a conversation worth having. GIFs changed all that by allowing users to communicate in more than just extreme and impersonal shorthands.

Sending someone a GIF was a perfect way to personalize your response and enrich it with subtext that GIFs are so efficient at conveying. On top of all that, they’re incredibly easy to create and share on social media, making them the best tool for communication available to the online masses.

After Tumblr’s launch in 2007, GIFs became a tool of powerful artistic expression as well. Since Tumblr allowed for packs of up to 10 GIFs to be used together (the so-called GIF sets), they became an incredible storytelling device, capable of conveying incredibly complex messages and narratives. It became a perfect creative outlet for people who felt that GIF was the artistic medium they were looking for.

However, Tumblr users weren’t the only people to turn to GIFs for the sake of art. Olia Lialina has been expressing herself with GIFs since 1997, creating deep and interactive works of art such as “War” and “Midnight.”

Others, like Chuck Poynter and Roger Von Biersborn, were also praised for their artistic expression using GIFs and nothing more.

Throughout the years, the main use of GIFs was and remains to be the ability to react to other people’s messages and content. Any GIF can be a reaction GIF when put in the right context. Like memes, GIFs have the uncanny ability to change the meaning and adapt to different contexts, making them an irreplaceable social tool.

The essential component of today's marketing

Today, brands are struggling to grab the attention of audiences whose minds are constantly bombarded with advertisements. Most people have already developed coping mechanisms that help them ignore ads and banners as they’re searching the internet. Static ads and images just don’t cut it anymore, not when there’s a superior method of reaching new buyers.

GIFs have turned out to be one of the most potent tools at any marketer’s disposal. They’re the perfect middle ground between images and videos, conveying more information than an image in the same amount of space while lasting far shorter and being more concise than videos.

Not only that but dynamic images have been shown to attract and keep the users’ attention much more efficiently than static images.

Here’s how The North Face advertised their outdoor sports gear using a GIF.

They aren’t the only big brand to use GIFs, however. Nike was also quick to pick up on the cultural relevance and advertising potency of the format.

The truth of the matter is that GIFs are sparking a revolution in digital advertising. They’re driving more conversions than most other ad formats and they’re here to stay. It’s time to put them to good use.

Bottom line

The history of GIFs is more or less the history of the internet. They’ve seen the rise and fall of every piece of technology that we associate with the web and outlived some of them such as Flash. Not only have GIFs become central to our culture but also have become crucial aspects of digital marketing. Their evolution has been quite impressive and very likely still ongoing, so keep your eyes peeled for the next great use of GIFs. Until then, add them to your ad campaigns to make them more interesting and dynamic, and your audience is certain to pick up on it.