How the GIF Changed Communication

In 1987, Steve Wilhite created an animated image type he called “Graphic Interchange Format,” or GIF for short.

Made popular for allowing 256 colors to be represented in a compressed image format and its compatibility with the web, those who browsed the early stages of the Internet are probably familiar with the GIF’s original use - tiny looping animations on 90s websites.

Now, instead of an unfortunate and dated by-product of the Internet, the GIF is one of the most shared format types.

Most importantly, it’s a versatile language and has seemingly taken the place of typed words in online communication.

Cell phones now include a GIF keyboard to search for images to send between friends. Fifty percent of marketers say the use animated gifs in their email campaigns.

Twitter timelines are filled with not words, but looping quotes from Toddlers in Tiaras or New Girl.

Even sports highlights find themselves in GIFs throughout social media, and it seems to be the punchline of just about all Internet interactions.

It’s undeniable - the GIF is ubiquitous throughout our culture.

In the age of viral videos and quick-to-catch-on apps like Snapchat, the GIF is a bit of a late bloomer. According to Google Trends, searches for “GIF” hit an alltime low in 2010 and have slowly risen since, with interest increasing nearly 400 percent.

The GIF was kept alive throughout the 90s and 2000s in chat rooms with images like the “dancing baby” from Ally McBeal, but it didn't really take off until well into the new millenium.

In 2010, blogs on Tumblr like "What Should We Call Me" began to convert short video clips to low-res, quick-looping GIFs captioned with reactions to the monotony of everyday life.

Reddit picked up the trend too, with subreddits emerging in the same vein, like /r/reactiongifs, /r/highqualitygifs and even /r/pandagifs, which is exactly what it sounds like.

These platforms popularized the format and brought it forward into mainstream culture as a means of communication and humor.

The GIF has become more than just a punchline, though. It became useful means of sharing information at a more sophisticated level in 2012 with GIF-highlights of the Summer Olympics in London posted on social media. The same year, the Oxford University Press further dragged it into lexicon when it recognized “GIF” as a verb.

They even voted it word of the year, citing its development into “a tool with serious applications including research and journalism.”

And that's no joke. Teachers are encouraged to use them in the classroom, and academics and designers use the format as educational literature for the modern age, creating images explaining how human beings develop in the womb or how a car engine works.

Source: Elanor Lutz/

Source: Jacob O'Neal/Animagraffs

Social media accounts are even dedicated to sharing delicious-looking GIFs explaining how to prepare certain recipes.

Animated GIFs are popular enough to have spawned an entire industry now, too. Websites like have made a fortune providing searchable GIF databases, methods for distributing them and platforms to create your own from YouTube clips or other videos.

Founded in 2013, the site has become the go-to for looping images, sometimes being referred to as the “Google of GIFs.” It gets more than 500 million views monthly, leading to a valuation of the company at $300 million earlier this year.

Its database is integrated in other popular apps, like Slack and Facebook, allowing users to search for GIFs within the apps themselves to send to friends.

The company’s COO Adam Leibsohn told Entrepreneur in March that the world is consciously becoming a GIF-able place, with entertainers and politicians tailoring their every move as if it were to become the next viral image.

Because of that, he says, the GIF is more than just a means of communication - it’s a solution to it.

“Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher who had this language theory: Words are really, really good at literal things but really clumsy at abstract things,” he told Entrepreneur. “And you realize the trick to getting out of the problem he proposes is not language, it’s visual.”

To learn more about the rise of the GIF, see Adam Leibsohn speak at Compute Midwest on November 2nd.

About Adam

Adam is the COO of Giphy. He is a product, marketing and communications strategy specialist with degrees in French, English and Philosophy.

His strategies and work have been featured in Fast Company, Wired Magazine, The Harvard Business Review, CNBC and The New York Times; and, he has been listed as one of Details Magazine's Digital Mavericks.

Previously, he was the Director of Communications Strategy at Anomaly, where he led award winning products and communications for Captain Morgan, Virgin America, Converse, Budweiser, Diesel, Motorola and more.

He has also consulted privately for the likes of Twitter, Square, Dropbox, Path, PayPal, Oscar and Rdio to help them solve fundamental marketing, organization and business challenges.

Now, he's helping build Giphy to change the way we search, share, communicate and create online.

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