The GIF is officially 30-something, and in the prime of its internet life.
Three decades ago, on June 15, 1987, the most beloved image file extension on the internet was birthed by a team of CompuServe developers seeking a way to compress images with minimal data loss. The solution: the GIF, a simple, flexible file format for lower-resolution pictures.
My, how far we’ve come since those inauspicious beginnings. These days, the GIF is so ubiquitous as a piece of internet culture that it’s got its own offshoot formats like reaction GIFs, GIF art, and Tumblr GIF sets. The question of how to pronounce the word “GIF” has become a rote topic of cultural debate. (The man who invented the GIF, Steve Wilhite, says it with a soft ‘G,’ like Jif peanut butter, but most people on the internet say it with a hard ‘G,’ because a) it’s more fun, b) it avoids confusion with said brand of peanut butter, and c) come on, it’s Graphical Interchange Format, not Giraffe-ical Interchange Format.)
The early days: the internet was under construction, and so was the GIF
Ah, the ‘90s. The internet was awash in garish designs, thanks to websites with noisy wallpaper backgrounds, Comic Sans font, and the ubiquitous Website Under Constructionsign. That Under Construction sign, along with many other cute, small animated icons, served as the average human’s introduction to the GIF.
Netscape, Marc Andreessen’s early web browser, reigned supreme for a hot moment in late 1994 and early 1995, just before the advent of Internet Explorer (released along with Windows ‘95) and other competing browsers like Netscape’s eventual successor Firefox. The fate of the GIF was intertwined with Netscape’s early success.
Netscape was the first browser to allow the user to interact with an image on a website instead of just text — meaning you could click on an image and have it link you to another webpage or new information. And when Netscape Navigator 2.0 was released in 1995, it supported the .GIF format, including animated GIFs. Thus, if you wanted an easy way to decorate your website, GIFs, whether static or animated, were simple and available.
Plus, when compared to other file formats, these early GIFs took up very little space on your hard drive and required very little bandwidth to download