Future Tense

A Reminder That GIFs Didn’t Always Move

Before they spiced up group chats and Tweets, GIFs served a more ordinary purpose

A computer with pixelated images of graphs (line graph, pie chart, bar graph).
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Last week, the family of the man who invented the GIF, Stephen Wilhite, announced that he had passed away at the age of 74 due to complications from COVID-19. While he claimed to have “never got 1 cent” for creating the GIF technology, his invention transformed the internet ecosystem and the ways in which people communicate online.

Although GIFs are popularly known as the short looping animations (or reality TV footage) that spice up internet posts and group chats, the format was originally intended for still images. While working at the bygone online service provider CompuServe in the 1980s, Wilhite was tasked with developing a file format that would allow users to efficiently transmit and display high-quality images. At the time, modem connections were still extremely slow In 1987, CompuServe released the GIF as a tool to transmit image data via webpages that was interoperable between different brands of hardware; at the time, manufacturers like Apple and IBM all had their own proprietary formats.

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Another aspect that made GIFs essential is that they didn’t take up a lot of memory. The technology employed the Lempel-Ziv-Welch algorithm, which found repeating patterns in the images and simplified them. GIFs could also hold multiple images because the algorithm removed redundant data. Think of these early GIFs as sometimes being a slideshow of still images. CompuServe hoped that GIFs would make it easier for its customers to share stock charts, weather maps, and photos. As Wired reports, some of the first uses of still GIFs were logos, charts, and line art. The technology was better for simpler images that didn’t have a lot of detail and would be too affected by small amounts of distortion.

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In 1989, CompuServe released an updated version of the GIF known as 89a. One of the new features in this update was an option for users to specify the length of time that each image in a GIF should be displayed, allowing them to create animations. However, the animations still couldn’t loop. It wasn’t until Netscape Navigator browser incorporated GIFs in 1995 that the animations began looping. The animated GIFs that first gained popularity and exposed the wider public to the technology included the Under Construction signs on early websites and moving clip art.

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If it hadn’t been for this animation feature, GIFs may have become an obscure artifact of internet history. File formats like the JPEG would eventually be more effective at storing and transmitting still images. In 1999, there was even movement to “Burn All GIFs” after a company called Unisys tried to exert its patent rights over the Lempel-Ziv-Welch algorithm, the code that allowed GIFs to compress images. When Unisys announced that they wanted to start charging a small fee for software that employed the GIF algorithm, developers began swearing off of GIFs and migrating to new file formats, like PNGs. Yet, GIFs persevered, as nothing would replicate the distinctive looping animation style. In 2013, Wilhite won a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award for his role in creating the GIF and changing internet culture forever. Instead of giving an acceptance speech at the ceremony, he played a GIF.

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Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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