A Riff on GIF: The 1980s Tech Behind Today’s Viral Videos

The latest Word of the Year winner from the Oxford American Dictionary was by many accounts an outlier that beat out some stiff competition, including superstorm, YOLO and Higgs boson.

Bucking tradition, the winner didn’t represent some newfangled trend in food (locavore, 2007) or technology (podcast, 2005).

No, in 2012 the word on everyone’s mind was GIF, or graphics interchange format, a tech tool that’s been around for a quarter century. For the uninitiated, GIF is what powers the simple, looping, and often hilarious animation that routinely appears in viral blog posts and mass emails from your friends.

Bestowing such an honor on the acronym might have seemed like a stretch, but Katherine Martin, head of the U.S. dictionaries program at Oxford University Press, begs to differ.

“Like so many other relics of the 80s, it has never been trendier,” she said. “The GIF has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications including research and journalism.”

The Four Seasons

Using a GIF to document the change of seasons is a challenge considering the format’s brevity. Credit: GIFbin.com


So what explains the renaissance of a compressed file format born in the back rooms of CompuServe in 1987? And why hasn’t the GIF gone the way of the Laserdisc?

An Oldie But a Goodie

According to an estimate by Internet Archive, GIFs comprise 29 percent of all images found on the million most popular web pages. And while Martin clearly has a noble vision of GIF culture, she shouldn’t be so fast to cast pop culture aside.

From a politician’s gaffe on the campaign trail to the alley-oop dunk that won the game, the GIF has evolved into the perfect format for capturing those water-cooler moments, summing up current events one half-second at a time.

Whether it’s Beyonce’s Super Bowl halftime show or Jennifer Lawrence’s stumble at the Oscars, the GIF conveys information in the simplest possible terms, getting straight to the moment that you’d be tempted to rewind over and over again.

“Beautiful Simplicity”

It’s the format’s ability to bring efficiency to time wasting that makes it valuable in more practical ways.

Writer Ann Friedman, author of the #realtalk blog for the Columbia Journalism Review, is proud to have a foot in what she calls the “GIF-heavy world,” helping older members of the fourth estate figure out how to use GIFs to their advantage.

“I am interested in the ways people convey information and express ideas beyond the written word,” says Friedman, who eagerly includes GIFs into each of her blog posts.

By putting careful thought into how to curate each of these little moments, Friedman knows the pictures will pack a punch.

“Some GIFS are funny on their own, but the expiration date is always coming up soon,” she explains. “You have to be able to put GIFs into new contexts, which makes them funnier and more relevant.”

Likewise, she acknowledges that the crudeness of the GIF can be its own reward.

“There’s a beautiful simplicity to a GIF when you compare it to trying to load and play a video clip,” says Friedman. “Non-verbal ways of conveying information really have an advantage.”

Do It Yourself

An appealing virtue of the GIF is the ease of making one.

One method relies on computer programs, like Adobe Photoshop or the open-source photo program GIMP, to import and arrange video or series of photographs.

Some websites make creating GIFs even easier. Gifninja allows users to upload image or video files, and then stitch them together.

Gickr operates the same way, but lets users create GIFs with a maximum of 10 photos they can import from their Flickr account. Makeagif works similarly while letting users log in through Facebook.

Perhaps the biggest testament to GIFs’ ascendancy is the newest copycat on the block: Vine, a free mobile app by Twitter that debuted in January and lets users patch together six-second videos to share with friends.

Will that hilarious moment you captured from last night’s episode of The Voice spread through the Internet like wildfire to become the foundation of the next great meme? Honestly, the odds are slim. But in this slow-motion revolution, just playing along is the real fun.

Mike Olson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wired and Popular Science. He lives in New York City.

Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn is a journalist covering the tech beat and an adjunct professor at Montclair State University. He lives in New Jersey, where he had worked as a staff writer for several leading daily newspapers and websites.
Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn
Tags: Business,Downtime,Tech Culture,Technology