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Long live the GIF

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This year marks the 30th birthday of the GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), the internet’s beloved image file extension. But how did the GIF come about, and why do we love it so much? 

Back in 1987, a group of developers wanted to find a way of compressing images without losing data. They decided to combine a bitmap image format that supports up to 8 bits per pixel with a patented lossless data compression technique called Lempel-Ziv-Welch. They then added that together with support for animation, and the now infamous and extremely shareable GIF was born.

GIFs became popular very quickly because the data compression used was much more efficient than other alternatives around at the time. It enabled large images to be downloaded in a much shorter time, even on slow modems (this was 30 years ago, so we're talking REALLY slow). 

Once they'd caught on they began to spring up all over the place. In the early days of the web, many people used GIFs as animated placeholders – who can forget the various versions of the ‘Under Construction’ GIF?

Before long, more and more people were catching on to the fun you could have with GIFs, and unique and quirky designs began to appear. Some very famous GIFs managed to cause a sensation all the way back in the early days of the web - such as the dancing baby, which is as annoying as it is addictive to watch.

And in 1998 a Canadian art student, Deirdre LaCarte, created one of the first truly global internet memes. Called The Hamster Dance, she used a collection of GIFs backed by a song called Whistle Stop that was written for the opening credits of Disney's animated Robin Hood. The Hamster Dance was quickly copied and replicated in different ways and even had a song written about it.

But what was holding the GIF back from its true potential was the patent on the data compression technique used. While that was still in place it was impossible for people to do what they wanted with it without paying a licence fee. 

PNG (Portable Networks Graphic) was created as a replacement for GIFs, so that people could get around paying the fee. Although a PNG usually compresses better than a GIF, support for it came very slowly from the browsers and as such GIFs have generally been more popular. 

Thankfully in 2004 all of the patents on licensing expired, and the GIF became free for everyone to use.

Since it first came into our lives, it has remained largely unchanged, so the fact that it’s still going strong 30 years on is impressive. In fact, not only is it still popular, it has become an important part of internet culture. Sites such as GIPHY enable you to find and share GIFs for free on just about any subject imaginable.

If you're not convinced, ask yourself how many times you've seen a GIF with the label ‘My face when/That feeling when’ while scrolling through your social media feeds?

There are even websites dedicated to the pronunciation of ‘GIF’ (the inventor is adamant that "Jif" is correct). 

So to celebrate 30 years of the GIF, we’ve put together a collection of some of our favourites.

1. An inconsiderate owl

 

2. Poor instructions

 

3. The waving cat

 

4. A dextrous dog

 

5. Morphing face

What's your favourite GIF?

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