Yesterday the GIF—a favorite birthday missive for many—had a birthday itself. Everyone’s favorite looping file format is now 30 years old—and in those three decades, it has managed to transcend its humble beginnings to become a star format of web communication.
The 30-year milestone is being celebrated with an IRL art show at New York’s Gallery 151, curated by the GIF database and search engine GIPHY, the creative platform Wallplay, the art organization Rhizome, and the New York-based Transfer Gallery. Titled “Time_Frame,” the show will feature historically significant GIFs and commissioned contemporary GIF art, as well as a weeklong series of talks and workshops beginning on June 17.
Above all, the celebrations will showcase the trajectory of an image format that has become ubiquitous in digital culture, but in fact predates the internet itself. The GIF was invented in 1987 by an engineer named Steve Wilhite, who at the time worked for the internet service provider Compuserve. The early online service needed a simple graphics format that could work on all computers while displaying sharp images over slow connections.
Because Compuserve was also interested in a format that would work well for graphs and stock quotes, it became the go-to format for graphics like logos and line art; meanwhile, JPEG took on photos. In 1994, Geocities launched as a platform for personal websites, and made GIFs available from central libraries.
Key to the GIF’s staying power is that Wilhite made his compression algorithm extensible, meaning that others could build on it to create more complex layouts. In 1995, the team behind the Netscape browser did just that—creating the animated GIF from Wihite’s static format. What started out as simple GIFs like the famed “under construction” animations for websites soon became viral sensations in the ’90s. Chief among them was the “Dancing Baby” GIF that sprung out of Ally McBeal’s hallucinations in the hit TV show of the same name.
In 1999, the GIF hit a snag when controversy regarding the patent license on the compression format flared up between the IT company Unisys and Compuserve. Although Unisys eventually abandoned its threat to bring suit, GIFs went out of fashion in the early aughts, when JPEGs and PNGs became more popular. Still, they remained popular on web forums like Reddit and Tumblr, and by 2013 they were back in full spring—that year, Oxford Dictionaries named GIF the word of the year.
As so much of our lives are now lived online, GIFs have become an expressive shorthand—an easy format for reacting or emoting in step with the speed of online communication. They’ve also become a new art form, as GIPHY’s History of the GIF timeline reminds us, with interviews with Net artists like Olia Lialina and Petra Cortright. In web years, 30 is practically ancient, but the simplicity of the GIF format has proven its ability to adapt and evolve along with the internet.