Sure, you know a GIF when you see one, but do you know what it stands for or the three decades of history behind it?
So, What Does GIF Mean?
GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format.
Although GIF supports both static and animated images, it is for the latter that this file storage format is mainly used. PNG and JPEG are much more widely used formats for storing static digital images, but do not support animation.
The acronym GIF can be pronounced either with a hard “G” (as in gift) or with a soft “G” (as in jiff). Although Steve Wilhite, the creator of the GIF format, intended for it to be pronounced with a soft “G”, most people say it with a hard “G”.
One of the reasons for the current popularity of GIFs is the availability of online GIF makers that allow people to create them with little effort or technical knowledge. Easy online access to footage from movies, TV programs, sporting and news events provides an enormous range of raw material from which to generate GIFs. Popular GIF making sites include giphy.com and gifmaker.me.
GIFs can be used to add emotional impact to present information in a creative way that connects with people. Once seen as tacky and garish, they are now very fashionable and are used in art, advertising, fashion, and other professional fields.
GIFs are very popular for sharing on social media, such as Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, and on messaging apps, such as WhatsApp. A GIF aggregation Facebook page GIFs@GeoGIF has over 1.4 million followers, and the gifs subreddit on Reddit has over 13 million subscribers, making it one the top 20 subreddits on the site.
The GIF format is very popular for expressing emotional reactions and for sending visual messages to people. Popular categories include:
1. SMH GIFs.
2. Happy GIFs.
3. Sexy GIFs.
4. Happy birthday GIFs.
5. Funny GIFs.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) March 11, 2017
when i find typos in the tweets of my enemies pic.twitter.com/HRTCBCZ99N
— Anne T. Donahue (@annetdonahue) March 10, 2017
WHEN PPL GIVE ME UNSOLICITED ADVICE pic.twitter.com/IRQ6cOpzRo
— Chelsea Peretti (@chelseaperetti) March 5, 2017
When you were born you held infinite promise.
You're older, you're all banged up by life
But you hold that promise still.
KEEP GOING pic.twitter.com/oTU70v5kGe
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) March 27, 2017
— Grasy Kardashian (@iKylieFornia) March 13, 2017
— *GIF*WORLD* (@wordstextings_) January 22, 2017
what's New Year's Eve if not an opportunity to use this gif? pic.twitter.com/dRkYa7nCAG
— Common White Girl (@girlposts) January 1, 2017
GIF is a bitmap image format that uses lossless data compression to reduce the file size without degrading the visual quality.
Each GIF image has a palette table that can hold up to 256 different colors. The colors can be drawn from a range of millions of shades, but the maximum number of colors used in a single image (or frame) is 256. The color limitations mean that this format is not suitable for digital photography. Photos saved in the GIF format look grainy and unrealistic.
It is possible to create a true color image in the GIF format with thousands of different shades. This involves breaking down an image into smaller blocks with no more than 256 different colors. These blocks can then be tiled together to create a complete image (example below by GDallimore). An image constructed in this way would have limited use though, as the file would be very large and not all GIF rendering programs would display such images correctly.
Transparency is another useful feature of the GIF format. One of the 256 colors can be defined as transparent, and this allows the image to be placed on any background color or design.
An animated GIF comprises multiple images or frames, which are played back in sequence with specified time delays and replay loops, with the option of continuous display. The result is an animated video clip. Some web browsers, e.g. Google Chrome and Safari, slow down GIF animations that have a fast frame rate.
One of the reasons for the prevalence of animated GIFs on the web is that the format is supported by all platforms and browsers. Apple’s iOS, for example, can display them, but does not support Flash animations.
This format is also used to store low color sprite data for games, and for line art, such as logos, with well defined edges and a limited number of flat, uniform colors.
The GIF format was first introduced in 1987 by the internet service provider CompuServe. The original version was known as GIF 87a and was created to provide a color image format for downloading, replacing an earlier black and white format. According to Steve Wilhite, the software developer who created the GIF format while working at CompuServe, the first GIF was a picture of a plane.
In 1989, CompuServe released an enhanced version of the format, which they called GIF 89a. Additional features included support for transparent backgrounds, image metadata and animation delays (multiple frames in a stream were already supported in 87a).
GIF was one of the first image formats used on the web and was the first to support color display, until the arrival of JPEG in 1992.
In the mid 1990s, Netscape (the most used web browser at the time) utilized the GIF design that allows users to define new blocks, and implemented the Netscape Application Block. This block specifies the number of times an animation is played, with 0 signifying continuous display. Support for these repeating animation loops first appeared in Netscape Navigator in September 1995, before spreading to other browsers. Without this added feature, the constantly repeating GIFs we see everywhere today would not be possible and it is likely that the format would have died.
With the introduction of personal web hosting services around this time, bright and colorful animated GIF banners were very popular for decorating websites, but came to be associated with tacky web design.
At the start of the 21st century, some of the early internet memes were GIF animations, e.g. the dancing baby.
Since 2010, the popularity of GIFs has been increasing year on year, and they are now popular than they have ever been. This is largely due to the availability of easy to use GIF makers combined with a rich source of footage from movies, TV shows, news and sports events.
On November 13, 2012, Oxford American Dictionaries announced that GIF was its Word of the Year, stating that, “the GIF has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications including research and journalism.”
In May 2015, Facebook added GIF support, even though they originally didn’t support them on their site.
JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, and is a commonly used method of lossy compression for digital images, particularly for those images produced by digital photography.
PNG is an abbreviation for Portable Network Graphics, and is a digital file format for storing images that supports lossless data compression.
TIFF is an acronym for Tagged Image File Format, and is a computer file format for storing images, popular among graphic artists, the publishing industry, and photographers.