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My Friend GIF Just Turned 26

A retrospective, in simple, looping animated images.
GIF by author

Were it the JPEG, WAV, CSV, DOC, PDF, MPG, or ZIP, then marking the occasion of a file format's birthday might seem a bit absurd. They all allow for rather exciting things to happen within and beyond our screens. Society wouldn't be in the same place without them. It might be outside, breathing some fresh air.

It's an evolutionary story, the GIF's, that makes it worth retelling and toasting. Cartwheeling through its years, from floppy disks to data farms, all the while light on disk space and never insisting on more than 8 bits per pixel. The GIF has stayed alive; it's designed, of course, to just keep looping.


People are still freaking out about the GIF's pronunciation, which I will gladly lob a : The creator's intention might have been to use a soft G, or 'jif.' That was made quite clear when he snagged his Webby three weeks ago, but I'm still always going to use the hard G. Call it disrespect. I'll call it endearing, or, how I grew up pronouncing it. It's how language works too. Everything evolves. It's survival.

Survival's been rough though. A patent fight between Unisys and CompuServe erupted over the format in 1994, nine years after Unisys patented the technology behind it, known as the Lempel-Ziv-Welch (LZW) lossless data compression technique. In 1987, CompuServe used the technology to give birth to the GIF, replacing their clunkier, earlier format, RLE, which was only black and white. The official release date of the 87a format, as it was then called, was June 15, 1987.

The GIF had a leg up on lots of formats, like the ones PCX and MacPaint used, namely that it could be downloaded much faster over a slow modem. Also cool: a later version of the GIF would offer an interlacing feature, which stored image scan lines out of order so that that even a partially downloaded image was somewhat recognizable. If the GIF you clicked on isn't the right one, you could abort the download before it was finished. This was superior to the other popular format on the early web, XBM, which was also, dismally, only black and white. Also, it wasn't animated.

GIF News, an online newsletter that was distributed every 60 days or so through BBSes between 1988 and 1993, was one of the first notable projects to utilize the format. Via: Know Your Meme

The GIF didn't just survive. It survived, giving rise to new subcultures, art, economies (see our reporting, for instance, on Jonah Peretti, JeromeLOL, Paper Rad.) Last year GIF—by now a verb too—was crowned "word of the year" by the Oxford University Press, which said it had evolved into "a tool with serious applications including research and journalism." (NB: this was the American wing of OUP, not still.)

Enough though. I'm ruining the GIF's birthday. To celebrate, I wanted to do something a little more thoughtful and corny, than last year's tacky and typical display. So since we're both 26, I just decided to look back at the most important things that happened in each of the years of our lives, with the help of my favorite file format. Happy birthday, Gif.


Being born


James Hansen tells the US Senate about global warming.


Loma Prieta / World Series Earthquake



The Super Nintendo Entertainment System is released in North America.


93 'til Infinity




Tamagachi pets hit shelves.




US state quarters program begins.



Barry Bonds hits 73 home runs, the most per single season in MLB history.



I met a life long friend, that taught me the ways of the GIF.


Facebook is launched.



Hurricane Katrina


Pluto is no longer a planet.



Taco Bell unveils its Volcano Menu



WikiLeaks publishes 'Collateral Murder.'


Arab Spring


Year of the GIF