Adam Philips

How GIF Transforms Digital Culture

Someone requested on Reddit Miguel Herrera Saiyan transformation. It was a two-hour impromptu project and it really surprised me when the next morning I learned that it had gone viral with 7 million views.

Adam Philips, animator


It is hard to imagine modern digital culture without a GIF. This format is so iconic that it has transformed the internet, perception of media, and even forced other media formats and platforms to mimic itself. The distinctive aspect of a GIF is that it is basically a moving image, frame-based image file. It brings a very specific aesthetics and visual language. As a product of its time, it should have been outdated, but even after 30 years after its inception, it is still one of the most used media formats on the Web.

From meme lords to big brands, from messengers to social media platforms GIFs are the universal language of fun. It can turn the context upside down if you can find and extract that perfect loop from any video. The historical entry of the first image on the Web which happened in 1992 was a GIF. The uploaded picture of “Les Horribles Cernettes” a comedy band based at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, marked the upcoming and very important visual aspect of the Internet.

GIF’s compression was a crucial aspect of early Internet days. Early 56k modems and web browsers needed smaller files to load on. Starting the era of visual content on the internet GIF has been replaced by its superior formats, JPEG and PNG. Hardly anyone uses GIF for still images. But the animated aspect which was a little goofy and felt outdated pretty soon had is glorious return with the era of social networks. Crowded mostly with the teenagers who are always willing to test new waters and are open for unconventional trends and formats. They are usually the early adopters.


The Shining Horror GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY


The history of Graphics Interchange Format or GIF traces back to 1987 when American computer scientist Steve Wilhite developed it with his team for CompuServe: the online services provider. Unlike JPEG another famous image file format, GIF uses lossless compression, which reduces a file’s size with no loss of quality. But it uses only indexed colors: a pallet of a maximum of 256 colors. This color range limitation makes it less suitable for high-quality photography.

Later in 1989 enhanced versions of GIF called 87a and 89a were released. CompuServe added transparent background colors, support for animation delays, and storage of application-specific metadata. The two versions can be distinguished by looking at the first six bytes of the file known as the “magic number” or signature. In programming, Magic Byte or Magic number is a data used to identify or verify the content of a file.

[Fun fact] A well-known technique in the glitch art community is code manipulation. Simply put, you open your media file with a text editor, change the code, and when you save and reopen the media files you have databend[mosh]. Another interesting topic that I will cover soon.

However, that was not the format as we know it today. GIFs were not always animated and the animations for images would only play once. The most important ingredient for the recipe was added in 1995 by Netscape. In Navigator 2.0 beta 4 they added the ability to repeat animations. So all modern animated GIFs have NETSCAPE 2.0 encoded string by default. GIF got its final form.

Yeah, and by the way, it pronounced soft G – “Jif”. The image file format was named after peanut butter brand Jif as a joke. “Choosy mothers choose Jif” was the slogan of the product, which was changed to “Choosy developers, choose JIF”.

Burn All GIFs

It is hard to imagine that in 1994 GIF as a format was about to be replaced by a new file format. GIFs used a compression technique called LZW (after Lempel-Ziv-Welch). GIF was documented in books, articles, and text files. Another company Unisys holds a patent on the procedure described in the article, but the article describing the algorithm had no mention of this. GIF was released as a free and open specification in 1987 becoming a world standard, but many developers wrote GIF supporting software without even knowing CompuServe, the company that designed GIF.

CompuServe itself was not aware of the patent. So infamous “GIF Tax” was born. Of course, the CompuServe/Unisys agreement should be made and it took a lot of developers off guard. Reactions were mixed. But anger was the result of confusion as GIF files were not covered by the patent. Only the software implementing LZW algorithm for writing GIF files were at risk.

As a reaction, some developers decided to start designing a patent-free evolution of GIF. New solutions were quickly developed that allowed them to create uncompressed GIF files without LZW and were compatible with already existing GIF loaders.

It was a needed step in the right direction but data structures and diverse procedures were not enough to avoid infringement as compressor still violates the Unisys patent. In 1995 CompuServe declared willingness to coordinate the development of a successor to GIF named GIF24. Updated GIF capable of 24-bit lossless compression.

In the process of solving the Unisys patent problem project, the “GEF” graphics-exchange format was born. GEF and GIF24 converged into PNG – “Portable Network Graphics” (unofficially “Png is Not Gif”).

PNG was a new flagman of uncompressed single image files as it featured true colors. It was better than a single-frame GIF but still lacks the gimmicky fun aspect of the latter.

It took almost a decade till the battle against Unisys patent was over. In 2004, the LZW compression patent expired worldwide. GIF was liberated and have flashed across millions of 4Chan, MySpace and Tumblr profiles and had established their dominance as “Great Internet Fun” ever since.

Ethics, Aesthetics and Transmediality

Through hyper-fast digital highways and over-saturated meme-driven pop culture, GIF is one of the most celebrated and transmedial formats. It is a perfect tool for Convergence Culture. It has such a strong presence in the modern digital ecosystem that many media formats either mimic it or eventually become it.

Here is an interesting case study. You probably know or even used BlinkingWhiteGuy meme. 2 seconds long GIF was destined to conquer the Internet. So let’s trace the origins.

In 2013, during an episode of GiantBomb series “Unprofessional Fridays” Drew Scanlon a.k.a. Blinking White Guy performs a reaction when his friend Jeff Gerstmann says “farming with my hoe” while playing Starbound. That’s it. From a 2-hour video it was just a 2-second clip. Somehow 2 years later in 2015 Scanlon appeared as a GIF in NeoGAF thread about a comic book. And only in February 2017, BlinkingWhiteGuy spiked in popularity when Tweeter user @eksbl used it in a tweet gaining over 50.00 retweets.

Now, when you can’t find the right text to convey your certain confusion Drew Scanlon comes to your aid. In one of his interviews, Scanlon mentioned how scary it is, because at that scale when you realize that it is out of your hands blinking white guy becomes the property of the internet.

Indeed, your doppelganger, your internet avatar, continues to live and has nothing to do with you anymore. You become the observer of your alternative life.

Here is another interesting case of transmediality. The year is 2012. Two 24-year-old best friends parted ways to attend law schools in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, California. In order to stay in touch, they decided to start a blog. In the naming of the blog, one of them accidentally typed “What should we call me?”. The phrase was funny so they kept it. The first post was a GIF animation from the television show “That’s So Raven”. Blog become a diary of two friends since then growing to 818 pages.

GIFs are not only fun and akward mems but also an interesting dialect of digital communication. It is visual, brief and in many cases expresses better representation of exact feeling than words. It is such a strong visual symbol that other media formats refer to GIF as a “original”.

Here are some examples to make it clear:

  • monday gif
  • yes yes yes gif
  • confused travolta gif
  • wait what gif

You don’t even need an image to understand what was the intent of the opponent. Context is equal to media form. In this case, the text refers to GIF that already transformed the video. This is reference to a reference and yet everybody gets it. Originally GIF was a weaker representation of the animated image. It was a byproduct of its time. Limited by technology: some kind of “beta” of early image formats.

Browsers supported Flash as a video format during early Internet days, which was the only alternative. And GIF was never meant to be a video file. But video format was limited as well. The early internet had only Adobe Flash and Real Player videos. They had terrible quality. But everything changed with HTML 5. Browsers started to support high-quality videos and it was logical that GIF as a format was doomed to retreat, right?

Surprisingly enough upcoming decade showed the contrary. GIF was not only as strong as ever but it had developed a unique communication dialect that was already inside the fabric of the digital culture. Google search results such as “Video to GIF” and numerous platforms dedicated to GIF conversions are the strong indicators of a very tenacious format. Microblogging platforms such as Vine were basically GIF producing factories with sound. It doesn’t last long though because one important aspect was missing. The Loop. GIFs are fun because of the aesthetics that they bring.

That media language is based on repetition. Visual repetition. That ‘s why another microcontent platform is raising: Russian startup Coub. They left the looping aspect but added longer sound. Now it is visual jazz. Users are improvising with GIF aesthetics and are allowed to mix music. A match made in heaven. Coub was founded in 2012 by Igor and Anton Gladkoborodov and Mikhail Tabunov. They named the platform after Leonardo Di Caprio’s character Cobb from Inception. “Coub”: a platform for never ending dreams.

And don’t even think that this format reached the peak of its evolution. It continues to transform and bring new branches of creativity. GIF artists have endless creative power at their disposal. 3D, Glitch, Datamosh, new and old films, aesthetically newer iterations like Cinemagraph, you name it. Mobile apps are capable of creating GIFs on the fly. It is not an accident that a megacorporation such as Facebook acquires Giphy, the popular platform dedicated only to GIFs.

Final Words

GIFs are the inseparable legacy of Web. As a relatively young media format, it is so deep into the fabric of a digital culture that you have to understand it. Within its endless creative power, it can evoke emotions and tell stories in a way no other format could.

GIFs can describe everyday routine, create mindless moments of fun, or go deep into very intimate aspects of a person’s life. Tumblr was one of the platforms that were tolerating adult GIFs. It was a digital paradise for people who enjoyed sexuality in a loop. And unlike dedicated adult sites with already labeled content, surfing for a GIF was full of surprises and that is what attracted many people. It had much more beyond aesthetics.

Many artists transitioned to the new GIFcentric art sector. Even fashion shows were structured around GIF aesthetic. GIFs have become real-time snippets of digital meta culture and in a way, they are deconstructing reality. Galleries showcase animated GIFs and curators reflect about Internet and Web-based genres of digital art. It is an interesting media format. It fills a need by creating the need. As you know it can feel tedious sometimes when you text and lose the context in the process. In this case, it is the emotional context. GIFs back that up.

The real world won’t be the same and for each new citizen of the internet entering this crazy digital domain for the first time, greetings like happykid.gif or hellocat.gif await.


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