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Wednesday, September 25, 2019

What Is a GIF, and How Do You Use Them?

GIF banner featuring individual frames of a horse's running animation.
VectorArtFactory/Shutterstock.com

Even if you can’t define the word “GIF,” you’ve definitely seen one before. They helped define the early internet, and they’re more popular now than ever before. But what exactly is a GIF, and how do you use them?

A GIF Is Just an Animated Image

In its simplest form, a GIF (pronounced “gif” or “jiff”) is just an image file. Like the JPEG or PNG file formats, the GIF format can be used to make still images. But the GIF format has a special feature—it can also be used to create animated images like the one below.

The classic surprised monkey GIF.

We say “animated images” because GIFs aren’t really videos. If anything, they’re more like flipbooks. For one, they don’t have sound (you probably noticed that). Also, the GIF format wasn’t created for animations; that’s just how things worked out. See, GIF files can hold multiple pictures at once, and people realized that these pictures could load sequentially (again, like a flipbook) if they’re decoded a certain way.

CompuServe published the GIF format in 1987, and it was last updated in 1989. In other words, GIF is older than about 35% of the US population, and it predates the World Wide Web by two years. It helped to define early GeoCities websites, MySpace pages, and email chains (remember the dancing baby?), and it’s still a large part of internet culture. In fact, the GIF format may be more popular now than ever before.

Why Are GIFs Gaining Popularity?

GIFs are gaining popularity because, like memes, they’re useful for communicating jokes, emotions, and ideas. Plus, sites like GIPHY and Gyfcat make it super easy to share and create GIFs. These services are integrated into apps like Twitter, and Facebook Messenger, and your phone’s keyboard, so they’re just as easy to use as emojis or “stickers.”

But why the GIF file format? Why hasn’t something else come along?

The classic dancing baby GIF.
The classic dancing baby GIF.

Honestly, GIF is a terribly outdated format. GIF files are 8-bit, which means that they’re restricted to 256 colors and almost always look like crap. The GIF format also doesn’t support semi-transparency, and GIFs often have a large file size (more than MP4 video files) because they’re uncompressed.

People have tried to replace the GIF format. They always fail. Mozilla’s APNG (animated PNG) format was created to replace GIF ten years ago, but that didn’t work out at all. There are many reasons why GIF has managed to stick around, but for the sake of time, we’re just going to give you the three big reasons now:

  • All Browsers Are Different: Browsers have their quirks, and sometimes one stinkin’ browser can prevent the web from moving forward. Need a specific example? Mozilla’s APNG format came out in 2008, but the Microsoft Edge browser only began to support the format this year. (In other words, if this animation doesn’t work, then you’re using an out-of-date version of the Edge browser.) All browsers have supported animated GIFs for a long time now.
  • HTML Didn’t Support Video: Before HTML5 launched in 2014, the HTML standard didn’t support video. This meant that it was easier to share GIFs than actual videos, so GIFs stuck around. Many websites used Adobe’s Flash plug-in for videos, but Flash didn’t work on mobile devices like iPhones.
  • GIFs Are Easy to Make: Why move to a new format when GIFs are so easy to make? GIF-making websites have been around for eons, and most photo editing software can be used to make GIFs.

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