The GIF Turns 30: How Adaptability Allowed a Technology to Have its Heyday after Three Decades

June 2, 2017

If you’ve ever connected with a team on Slack, reacted to a post on Tumblr, or tuned in to a Twitter debate, there’s a very good chance you’ve used GIFs (or at least seen them deployed). The GIF, which stands for Graphic Interchange Format, has become a huge part of the way many of us communicate, especially in recent years. For those who created their reaction GIF folders in recent years, it may be surprising to learn that the format got its start as a way for early-Internet service Compuserve to display company logos and stock charts sharply to a variety of computers over slow connections in the 1980s.

How did the GIF go from stock quotes to fully animated images?

In the above-linked WIRED article, Klint Finley writes, “But the most important thing about the format was that [GIF creator Steve] Wilhite had the foresight to make it extensible, so that other developers could add custom types of information to GIFs. That enabled the team behind the Netscape browser to create the animated GIF standard in 1995.”

And there we have our answer: The GIF survived, and now thrives, because its creator had the foresight to build adaptability right into it.

Including flexibility in an innovation is an act of admitting you can’t see the future but you think your technology will be of use in it. This approach allows others – or even you, the innovator – to revisit a technology and retool it for modern needs, helping ensure that technology’s survival and aiding its success.

The animated GIF experienced a brief boom before lingering in obscurity throughout much of the late’90s and the ’00s. But the Netscape-modified Wilhite creation soon came roaring back, bolstered by improved Internet connections and a referential culture. The technology met the moment perfectly, thanks to its modifications, and we experienced the glut of GIFs that to some represents communication in the mid-2010s. Today, we have apps with built-in “GIF keyboards,” including Twitter, Slack, Facebook Messenger and Apple’s native iOS messaging app.

No matter what you want to express, these days there is almost certainly a GIF for you.