The Story of GIF (2103)

This is a talk I gave at The Conference in Malmö, Sweden in August of 2013 explaining the evolution of GIF from file format to cultural phenomenon.

And I told it as if it were a fairy tale.

And I told it through animated gifs.

If you’d rather watch a video, click here.


It’s funny how much we don’t see when we look at our own computers. Like file extensions. .doc .pdf .mov. With few exceptions we stare right past them which is a shame because there is so much history behind those three letter words.

And until recently, GIF was one of those extensions not because of ubiquity but because we stopped paying attention. But that has changed. GIF is right up there with MP3 and much like its audio file format cousin, it’s taken a long time to get there.

Which is weird. This is a technology that for all reason should be considered dead! It was born on the pre-web internet. It is clunky. It is inefficient. .JPG makes better photographs. Technologies like Flash with power in the form of money and corporations and licensing agreements should have made GIF obsolete.

The the amazing part is that GIF didn’t have any of that. It didn’t have institutionalized power, it didn’t have the support of large companies. but it’s here because people made it happen. It empowered a culture and practice that grew from the ground up. And that’s why I find the story of GIF so interesting.

And because I think we need a new mythology of the internet. One that celebrates the participatory nature of bottom-up emergent cultures, I’m going to tell you a story.

We need a mythology of internet that isn’t just about the facts and dates but is about the actual power relationships which is — in many ways — the real history.

To understand the present.GIF we must understand GIF’s past.

This is the true story of the rise of the animated gif as told amusingly through a loose interpretation of the fairy tale Snow White.

Once upon a time, there was a King named Browser and a Queen named Compuserve.

One day Queen Compuserve wished for a image format capable of (but not intended to) play short animations but still be supported by any browser without a need for plugins.

So one day such a format was born. They name her GIF89a and issue her spec.

But, sadly, soon after Compuserve dies.

So a respectful amount of time later, King Browser remarries and his new wife is useful, but also arrogant as she requires plug-ins and constant updating and is a huge CPU hog….

But, eh, he thinks, that doesn’t matter as this was the time of broadband internet so connections were getting faster and CPU speeds were doubling every generation or so according to Mr. Moore.

The new Queen is named Flash.

GIF is very popular but highly inefficient compared to other image codecs like JPEG and TIFF. Her ability to make animations makes her a bit of a novelty, which she uses to get work rendering images for the neighborhoods of Geocities, Lycos, and

The new queen possesses a magic mirror called Tech Blogs which she asks every morning “Magic blog coverage, who is the most useful format of all?”

And Tech Blogs always replies “Why Flash, you are the most useful in the land. You play back huge video files, you support images, you’re like a multimedia CD ROM for the web!”

And the queen is pleased because the tech blogs are never wrong.

One day GIF meets MySpace who embraces her quirkiness.

Soon, because of MySpace’s popularity, GIF is in demand more than ever before.

Queen Flash gets fearful and tells everyone that MySpace sucks and that Facebook is the next big thing.

She then banishes GIF to the forest of subcultures and non-commercial file format deprecation.

GIF wanders the subcultural forest, where the woodland creatures are curious about this file format from the days of Web 1.0.

And eventually GIF meets the trolls dwarves of the subcultural forest and they’re called 4chan, b3ta, Something Awful and and net art and ONTD and YTMND.

They take GIF in.

They take GIF in and she starts making short animations out of viral video clips and and NSFW webcam footage. And the creatures of the forest loved it. These are clips that are being looped and pared down to their most essential moments, the files are small and there is no DRM and nobody has to press play, GIFs spread in ways that videos clips and large JPGs don’t.

Even if its not in the mainstream in terms of attention, these forums span so many users across so many languages and so many Kingdoms that GIF is huge in volume. GIF is useful.

This isn’t Grimm.

This isn’t Disney.

This is the Internet.

Because nobody dies, nobody is a witting symbol of the patriarchy, and nobody is looking at a body in a coffin and saying “Yeah, I want me some of that.”

Yes, Queen Flash wants to rule but she thinks she’s going to do that through long term contracts with things like games and subscriber video on demand services and to be honest, Flash knows that she’s finished but that doesn’t matter because this story isn’t about her.

And GIF, she’s a file format who has traveled into the world only to come out on the other side having learned that she wasn’t the problem at all — as a file format she’s doesn’t have to be the most popular, she just has to do what she does well and if the woodland creatures use GIF then awesome and if not then oh well.

The internet forums get to work doing what they do, which is finding or making interesting content and surfacing it to their communities and GIF does what she does best which is turning small moments of video into short loops of visual data.

So GIF continues creating these small, slightly technically inefficient but super interesting loops of moments from television, viral videos, animation, and porn and original art.

And because they’re small and, people start using them as reactions to the content being shared on the forums. That’s content being used as communication in reaction to content.

And so one day Prince Tumblr (who in this story isn’t male because traditional gender socialization sucks and this is Tumblr after all so Prince Tumblr is actually Fem!Prince Tumblr) is traveling the forest of subcultures.

So fem!Prince Tumblr just happens to be from the hot new Kingdom of Tumblr which is full of fan communities and hipsters and creative types that are super visual…

And so Tumblr says to GIF “I love your format so much! I want you to be the queen of the Tumblr Kingdom.”

And GIF replies “Ok but I’ve been working hard and my renderings are so much more than the ornamental animations the rest of the internet once knew.”

And Tumblr says “lol. My kingdom knows that already.”

It turns out — like what actually happens on the internet, the users of Tumblr were also on the dwarves’ forums and they were makers, and they were already part of the culture — they knew exactly what to do with the format.

It turns out the users of Tumblr were there all along...

And they were making art gifs and fancy looking fashion “cinemagraph” gifs…

And they were making and sharing instructional gifs that helped other users with fitness and education and sports. These were things that became easier to understand and learn from because of the looping nature of the GIF format.

And of course porn exploded and not just professional porn but independent porn as well as people exploring sexuality at home and sharing those experiences through gifs.

And most importantly for our favorite file format, the Tumblr Kingdom has two features that are perfect for GIFS.

The first is that you can upload a group of photos into a single “photoset” which means that you can get really creative on the timing and juxtaposition of animated gifs.

The second is that the heart of Tumblr is the “reblog” which is more than just a retweet or a share — it allows you to add your own text and images in response and when you reblog it, your response is just as important as the original post. This facilitates discussion. And because reblogs show up on the original post as “notes” it means that you can actually see what other people have written in their responses.

So if someone were to watch the Disney movie Snow White, she may love it so much that she wants to share it with their followers on Tumblr so she creates a gifset. She gives it tags so that it’s findable by other people exploring topical content on tumblr. The post gets reblogged, perhaps with commentary on how much they also loved the movie and what it meant to them.

And somewhere down that line of reblogs, someone decides to save this one gif to their hard drive and perhaps they rename it happy.gif.

And one day she comes across a post about a topic that has nothing to do with the movie but her reaction to it contains an emotion, one that is perfectly illustrated by her newly saved happy.gif.

Lots of people see this gif and it is at this moment that they associate that gif with that emotional reaction. They save the gif to their own collection, and suddenly you begin seeing the same gif used it other reactions. At this point, even if you haven’t seen the movie, there is enough information in the image to understand it’s meaning.

And sometimes a reaction gif can spawn it’s own derivatives. In this case, happy.gif becomes sarcastic-clap.gif. Which — from the posts I’ve found — is used more often than the original.

And so GIF became queen of Tumblr and the forums made her a Duchess because she’s a file format and can be everywhere at once.

Suddenly, the other kingdoms of the mainstream internet start paying attention to what GIF was doing.

And they realized that this file format that they had shunned for so long is actually really useful. GIF loops weren’t annoying, they were actually illustrative and instructional so they start using GIFs in news and sports and entertainment sites across the web.

And all of this happens not because of a huge investment in marketing or because somebody thought GIF was the future. It happens because there is a community of users looking to optimize what they do online and that’s find things that interest them and share those things with others.

And that is the story of how users embraced a 30 year old file format and turned it into something brand new again and, in turn, created new forms of expression that they didn’t have before.

And that is kind of awesome.