We may be entering some sort of post-GIF age, given that Gen Z has declared GIF reactions “cheugy” along with skinny jeans, side parts and laugh emojis. But millennial influencers, Gen X Slack-ers (pun intended), and even Baby Boomers have fully embraced the art of choosing the perfect GIF to sum up their feelings on, well, anything.
It wouldn’t be the first time the file format came in and out of style. The “under construction” GIFs on Geocities websites are still the butt of jokes. The humble GIF was birthed in May 1987—even before the World Wide Web.
A team of developers at CompuServe led by Steve Wilhite created the Graphics Interchange Format to share color files without hogging computer memory on late 1980s machines. The team used the Lempl-Ziv-Welch (LZW) compression algorithm (named for its creators) to identify and simplify patterns, enabling lossless compression. The end result: a “flipbook” of still images that appeared to be a looping video (though most early GIFs appeared as single still images).
The fall and resurgence of the GIF
All was happy, until 1995 when Unisys Corp., which owned the patent for the LZW algorithm, decided to start charging a small royalty for its use. That patent wouldn’t run out until 2003 in the U.S. and 2004 elsewhere. Suddenly the GIF was costly and not-so-cool. Developers reacted by creating the PNG file type—with PNG a shortened form of “PING,” or “Ping Is Not GIF”—and deleting their GIFs on “Burn All GIFs Day,” Nov. 5, 1999. Animated GIFs were tossed aside in favor of Flash and eventually HTML5.
But what goes around comes around, and we all know iPhones didn’t play with Flash. And GIFs became valuable shorthand in the wilder corners of the internet, including 4chan, Reddit, and Tumblr. Millennials loved the GIF—so much that the Oxford Dictionary named “GIF” its 2012 word of the year.
So will Gen Z come with something to replace the GIF reaction?
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