Haggie Partners

A GIF from me to you

By Connor Murphy @HaggiePartners

‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ – Unknown

While you may not know what a GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) is, you have undoubtedly seen one, from twirling hard hats to jumping cats, the internet has grown up with GIFs at its heart.

Designed in 1987, GIFs allowed web developers to display colour images online, allowing a palette of 256 colours while still retaining a compression level early modems could handle. In 1989 it was tweaked to allow several individual GIF images to be combined and played as a looping animation, kind of like a flip book, and the animated GIF was born.

This all sounds rather unremarkable I know, but if you take into account that the average two-minute YouTube video would have taken 40 minutes to buffer on a modem from the early 1990s, while GIFs loaded in seconds, you can see just how important they were.

As a result, GIFs became hugely popular and the go-to image format for web developers.

Sadly, a copyright lawsuit would bring an end to that popularity and lead to CompuServe (the designer) creating a replacement, the PNG (Portable Network Graphic).

PNGs were an all-round improvement, offering better compression and more general options. Their lack of animation also coincided with a period in which moving icons in web design were losing popularity.

PNGs and JPEGs are nowadays simply a better option for static images and from 1996 became the industry standard.

The humble GIF fell into obscurity, shunned by web designers; it seemed that the once all-conquering image format was quickly dying. However, just like Take That, 1996 may have seemed like the end, but the mid-00s became the platform for a revival (Coincidence? I’ll let you decide).

The launch of YouTube in 2005 meant that online video consumption grew rapidly. More clips were shared through emails, on message boards and forums, but online videos are bulky and awkward, due to their large file size and the propensity for video hosting sites to load ads before buffering the video.

GIFs on the other hand don’t have ads, as they don’t require a hosting site, and their small file size means they load quickly. These advantages became even more acute with the advent of smart phones, social media and instant messaging.

IT professionals and graphic designers may remember them as an antiquated image file, but to those of us so often described as ‘millennials’ GIFs quickly became a form of expression.

Both Facebook Messenger and Twitter have dedicated GIF support, but it was on Tumblr that the GIF really grew as a communication form. Pioneered by Tumblr blogs such as ‘what should we call me’, on which self-deprecation was the brand of humour and GIFs became its medium, the GIF was fast tracked back into the mainstream, alongside the growth of ‘meme culture’.

GIFs can indicate you find something from funny or confusing, to whether you’re feeling on top of the world, or that it is conspiring against you. Much like emojis they answer a very modern question, that of how do you convey yourself online when words fail?

As video’s definition increased and the desire to share longer clips grew, the capabilities of GIFs as a format became stretched. As a result, webm, gifv and gfy files have all been developed. They are all essentially a refinement of the gif format. What their creation shows is the importance of the GIF’s core functionality to online communities.

Now older than almost half of Haggie employees, GIFs have fought back from obscurity to become one of the internet’s favourite formats. Like emojis, they are a great way to communicate a feeling, give context to typed messages or simply share a portion of a video. At nearly 30 years old the humble GIF has far from reached its use-by date.


So until next time…


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