Home Video of the Week: History of the Animated GIF

Video of the Week: History of the Animated GIF

In the early days of the Web there was a lot of experimenting going on. It was a brand new world where almost anything seemed possible. Decades later, many of those dreams have come true and new dreams have been born. In the meantime, a lot of the early innovation have come, seen their day in the sun, and been cast aside when something new comes along. Through it all one element has remained, the go to resource for geeks everywhere: the animated GIF.

The GIF was created by CompuServe in 1987, years before many of today’s brightest Internet entrepreneurs were born. It became popular with Web designers in the early 1990s and the heyday of AOL dial-up Internet and exploded when the first modern browsers such as Netscape evolved in the mid-1990s.

The GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format, was designed as one of the first static image standards for the Web. It was first called 87a by CompuServe and later updated to 89a. Its counterpoint at the time was XMB, a black and white image standard.

Animated GIFs came later as CompuServe updated the standard to allow multiple frames in the static tile. Flames and flags became popular images. Older Web designers will remember the time in the 1990s where every site was static and uninspired lists of words and links. The animated GIF was a way to give a site a little pizzazz and style. Most GIFS at that time were cartoonish animations (such as the aforementioned flames) but the use of multiple images within a GIF through photography also existed.

Eventually there was a backlash against GIFs in Web design. They were simple and often childish and were an embarrassing element from an earlier generation of the Web that many designers wished to forget. The PNG (Portable Networks Graphics) were created both as a way to replace the GIF and as a way to avoid the Unisys patent on LZW compression. The PNG is now a popular image standard along with JPEG.

But the GIF never really went away. It persisted as an image standard even if PNG and JPEG started doing the heavy lifting.

Then came the rise of Web 2.0.

The rebirth of the animated GIF came with the height of MySpace. Remember all those tacky pages users would create and their obnoxious status updates with moving images? Yeah, most of those were GIFs. Really, when you think about it, the GIF was behind much of what has been annoying and tacky on the Internet for the last 25 years. GIFs have been popular in message board forums for over a decade.

I had not really thought about the animated GIF for a couple of years. Sure they were around every so often but it was not a standard that I encountered everyday. I had heard some vague rumor about Tumblr being the new realm of the animated GIF but I have never been a heavy Tumblr user. Then came Google+. The most active people on Google’s social network tend to be those very same old Web designers and geeks that populated the Web in the 1990s. Hence, the GIF is their meme-generator of choice.

PBS Off Book created a video on the history of the meme that has been making the rounds on the Web this week. Check it out below.

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