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The History of the GIF in Honor of Its Birthday

If you're a Millennial chatting online with friends, you might send GIFs almost as much as you type actual words. But do you know the story behind them?

Believe it or not, the GIF has been around since 1987. Known officially as “graphics interchange format,” it was invented by a CompuServe software designer, Steve Wilhite. Wilhite later went on to win a Lifetime Achievement Webby for it, but at the time, he couldn’t have imagined what the future held for his humble graphic.

Keep in mind, the GIF’s creation happened before most homes even had Internet! These days, you can’t scroll through your Android without seeing a plethora of GIFs. They’re all over social media and entertainment sites, and they’re even sitting in your inbox as photo messages. If you’re curious to know how this 30-year-old imaging technology is still alive and kicking, read on below to find out.

Read More: How to Up Your Social Media Game with GIFs

Where It All Started

1987 was so long ago that Steve Wilhite himself can’t remember what the first GIF was. (He believes it might have been an airplane). But there is one thing he’s very clear about: Wilhite insists that “GIF” is said with a soft G (“jif”), as opposed to that hard G — which is the popular pronunciation!

In any case, the GIF was created to accommodate the dial-up Internet of the 80s. Since online connections ran at a snail’s pace, GIFs were designed to transfer moving color images at slow speeds. Encompassed by one GIF is: up to 8 bits per pixel, a palette of up to 256 different colors, and a 24-bit RGB color space. Needless to say, this format is very no frills.

The GIF’s Impact on Today’s Culture

So, how did the GIF survive until 2017? Well, it almost didn’t. When AOL bought CompuServe in 1998, the GIF died out when it was replaced by AOL’s emojis. But luckily enough for GIF lovers, AOL also freely offered up the GIF’s patents as public domain — and media artists saw a new venue for creativity!

These 90s artists singlehandedly revitalized the GIF until it got a renewed existence on MySpace in the 2000s. However, online users got tired of these big, sparkly GIFs and the format faded away. Around 2012, Tumblr and Reddit users saw untapped possibility in the GIF’s usage. Distilling movies, TV shows, and other entertainment media into GIFs led to fun, new possibilities. The format’s popularity exploded like never before.

Users now regularly show how they’re feeling by using a single GIF. They’ve become a creative form of self-expression. Post a GIF on your Facebook or Twitter feeds. Upload a GIF onto your blog. Send a GIF to a buddy over text messenger. GIFs are everywhere and it looks like they’re here to stay!