History of the humble gif

The GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format, is a file format that supports lower-resolution images, both animated and static. It continues to be used at higher traffic websites than two other major graphics file formats, PNG and JPEG, this month.

Animated gifs are currently one of the most common image formats. You might have tweeted an animated reaction GIF at a conference or shared a Beyoncé music video GIF on YouTube. When you start paying more attention, GIFs are everywhere.

The story of GIF is a classic tale of how marketing-savvy startups successfully rebranded a computer scientist’s invention and sold it as a mainstream use to today’s mobile-savvy audience.

A more important question is: how can you use it in your digital marketing strategies?

GIF or JIF?!

GIF was developed in 1987 to compress images more efficiently without losing much of details. Thirty years later, the creation led to an ongoing heated debate over how it should be pronounced.

In 2012, the Oxford Dictionary named it the “U.S. Word of the Year.” By that time, many have adopted the hard “G” pronouncing because GIF stands for “Graphics Interchange Format.” So it is natural to pronounce it the same as in “graphics.”

Newsweek quoted an NYU linguistic professor’s explanation on why the hard “G” way is widespread.

“Because GIF is an acronym and not a word, a computer would use its closest lexical neighbor to determine pronunciation. And as we’ve already indicated, that neighbor is ‘gift.’”

GIF creator Steve Wilhite insisted on pronouncing it as “jif” to echo the peanut butter brand. In 2013, Wilhite tried to set the record straight with a slide in the presentation and his technical sense of humor when he received the Lifetime Achievement Webby Award for his invention.

“It’s pronounced ‘JIF,’ not ‘GIF,’ ” Wilhite said.

And the battle continued…

The Oxford English Dictionary still accepts both pronunciations.

So there is no need to feel embarrassed whether you pronounce GIF with a hard “G” like in “gift,” or with a soft “G,” like in the peanut butter brand “Jif.” Because they are both right and both wrong.

Social Media and Pop Culture

Whether you’ve sided with Father of the GIF or the hard “G” community so far, it has got people to talk about it and use it. GIFs led the trend among the early web developers through the mid-1990s for until more complicated design tools that support higher resolution images overshadowed its portable and easy-to-use animation features.

The potential of GIF was unleashed in recent years with the rise of social media and the advances in smart phone technology. Whether you call it a renaissance, a comeback or resurgence, GIFs are back.

To understand how the GIF makers and platforms have generated billions of views through audience like you, it is important to know a few names:

Father of GIFs: Steve Wilhite

As introduced earlier, GIF was Steve Wilhite’s brainchild. Wilhite developed GIF in 1987 while working for CompuServe, a dominant online service provider during the 1980s. His creation remained a major influence through the mid-1990s.

The interactive format took up little space on hard drives and could be looped infinitely. It became popular among early Internet users and inspired developers to create the early viral images.

Early Viral GIFs

A 3D-rendered GIF animation of a cha-cha dancing infant was one of the early viral videos in the second half of the 1990’s.

The 2001 Dancing Banana character was released from a famous animation “Peanut Butter Jelly Time.”

The animation was made as a Flash animation, which was considered a more sophisticated animation tool than GIF. The GIF format was only used to replicate the animation in “Peanut Butter Jelly Time.”

Tumblr: Revived Animated GIF Culture

The first social media companies, such as MySpace, Facebook and Youtube, were founded between 2003 and 2005. They did not favor code-heavy images because they require better image-handling and faster loading. The operating systems of smartphones, like the 2005 iPhone prototype, also needed more portable web designs.

Founded in 2007, Tumblr, a microblogging and social networking platform, has contributed to the renaissance of GIFs.

Tumblr released its own “GIF search engine” in 2015 after it had collected GIF images hosted on its service. The feature allows users to search and share GIFs in their 154.1 billion posts on Tumblr (as of October 2017) through the social media platform’s indexed and cataloged GIF collection.

Giphy: Making everything move

When you open the homepage of a GIF website or app, brace yourself for the kind of look of a pop culture sticker box. And they are all moving.

A few examples among the most popular GIFs in 2017: Bryan Cranston’s F-Bomb(138 million views), Wonder Woman Happy Dance(135 million views), and Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl Jump(47 million views).

Eighty percent of all the GIF searches were TV, movies and celebrities, Giphy revealed from their 2014 analysis.

Giphy, a search engine and platform for GIFs, serves more than 300 million daily users and they share more than two billion GIFs per day via the platform.

Giphy users can search for animated GIFs based on action or emotion words, such as “laughing,” “party” or “wood.” The searching engine algorithm is built that way because GIF images are made and used to evoke emotions, making you laugh or go wow at someone’s actions.

“A laugh is worth a hundred groans in any market,” writer Charles Lamb said it best.

Giphy founders Alex Chung and Jace Cooke came up with the business idea when they were musing on the rising trend of visual communication. They started Giphy as a searchable database for GIFs in 2013 and quickly ventured out to partner with media companies, allowing users to post, embed and share Giphy-powered GIFs on Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Microsoft Outlook, and Viber, just to name a few.

Giphy managed to grow by “getting GIF buttons inside of places where they weren’t,” COO Adam Leibsohn said.

While the five-year-old startup is exploring their options to monetize their products and test grounds for sponsored ads, they have worked with glamorous celebrity events like Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes to “live GIF” the shows, creating short video loops used to jazz up online conversations and get shared.

In October 2016, Giphy raised $72 million, bringing its valuation to around $600 million. GIF platforms like Giphy are capitalizing on the pop culture aspect of visual communication in an era when people sign up for digital channels to express, interact and consume.