The Complicated History of the Humble GIF Image

Already more than a decade old and with roots reaching back half a decade before the World Wide Web itself, the GIF was showing its age. It offered support for a paltry 256 colors. Its animation capabilities were easily rivaled by a flipbook. It was markedly inferior to virtually every file format that had followed it. On top of that, there were the threats of litigation from parent companies and patent-holders which had been looming over GIF users for five long years before the fiery call to action. By Burn All GIFs Day, the GIF was wobbling on the precipice of destruction. Those who knew enough to care deeply about file formats and the future of the web were marching on the gates, armed with PNGs of torches and pitchforks.

And yet, somehow, here we are. Seventeen years later, the GIF not only isn’t dead. It rules the web.

Earlier this year, Twitter introduced a built-in search engine that offers split-second access to a library of thousands upon thousands of GIFs. Giphy, the company that curates that library, raised $55 million dollars in its latest round of funding, bringing its total value to some $300 million. A year before that, Imgur—until very recently the de facto image hosting service for the media mammoth Reddit and a $200 million company in its own right—rolled out GIFV, its own attempt to modernize the nearly 30-year-old file format.

The GIF as an art form—a short and silent loop—has never been more popular than it is right now. Yet the GIF as a filetype, the way we store the library of ones and zeros that computers translate into animation, is quietly embattled. Behind the scenes, a war to exterminate it has been raging for years, and it never really ended. All these years after Burn All GIFs Day, the GIF remains both deeply flawed and yet strangely irreplaceable. Whether this latest frenzy of GIF popularity enshrines it forever or kills it for good, you can be damn sure we’ll never see anything quite like it again.

 Read more at Popular Mechanics.

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