Twitter has a GIF button, and even Apple adds GIF search to the iOS messaging app. Such a thing would be unthinkable a decade ago, when GIFs had blinking text signature, and embedded MIDI files. But today they have become ubiquitous. Animated GIFs have transcended their obscure roots from the 1990s to become a key part of everyday digital communication. The GIF has a dual function - as an expression, and as a digital literacy feature. Not bad for an image standard that is older than the web.
Today, GIF is a synonym for short looping (continuous repetition) animations. But, initially, it was a way of viewing photos. Steve Wilhite started working on a graphic exchange format in early 1986. At that time he was a developer for Compuserve, an early online service that allows users to access chat rooms, forums, and information such as stock quotes, using dial-up modems.
GIFs were supposed to solve two issues. The first was that every computer brand had its own way of displaying graphics. The formats were so different, that they couldn't even show up on most of the devices. The other problem was the slow connection that couldn't handle with large files, so the goal was to create a format that would show clear graphics despite the slow network.
At that time, another major image format, JPEG, was developing. However, it is better adapted to photos and other images that contain large amounts of detail, and do not suffer from mild distortion. Compuserve was supposed to show stock quotes, weather charts, and all kinds of other charts; simple images that could withstand dense lines. So, Wilhite decided to create GIF on a Lempel-Ziv-Welch or LZW compression protocol.
Wilhite completed the first version of GIF at the end of May 1987, and Compuserve started using the format in the next month. That was two years before Sir Tim Berners-Lee announced his World Wide Web project, and six years before the Mosaic browser made the web accessible. But, without the web there would be no GIFs
The GIF was perfect for displaying logos, drawings and graphs on the web (something that Google with Data GIF Maker has recently reshaped) for the same reasons that Wilhite first developed the format. Since particles of the image can be transparent, meaning that an image can fit into the background or be connected to other images in interesting ways, web designers make it possible to create more complex visuals. But, the most important thing in the format was that Wilhite wanted to extend its performance, so other developers could add GIF's customized data types. This enabled the team behind the Netscape browser to create an animated GIF standard in 1995.
The animated GIF epidemic ended just as quickly as it started. Since web design is being professionalized, animators and artists have turned to more sophisticated media such as Flash, and later HTML5, so the GIF has been slightly forgotten. But format has survived on forums and web pages, like 4Chan, Reddit and Tumblr. When people realized that they could put small, looping animations in web conversations, GIFs became a new form of expression. These were mostly snippets of people clapping, heads hitting the table, or substituting text with dance, and new, artistic GIFs appeared as a form of micro entertainment. The rise of smartphones has made this form of visual communication even more attractive.
It is difficult to say when exactly GIF has entered the mainstream web experience again. Nieman Journalism Lab thinks that happen around the London Summer Olympics in 2012. In the same year Oxford Dictionaries called "GIF" a word of the year. By the beginning of 2013, GIFs appeared in museums and marketing. In that year, Steve Wilhite received a lifetime award at Webbys.
Part of GIF's success is owed to web-addicts who have built up a huge list of GIF files that you can choose. When you want to express terror or joy, or any other emotion, all you have to do is go to Tumblr, Giphy, or Tenor, and you will find a suitable loop. This can be imagined as an extended visual dictionary built over the years. Instead of asking what shall be next, maybe we should ask if the GIF is the ultimate goal of the visual language. Let's give another 30 years to GIF, and we will see what will really happen.