The Rise of the GIF

Find out how the GIF began and why more and more organisations are using Graphics Interchange Format to reach out to their target audience

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As the old saying goes; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Despite the low quality graphics, lack of audio, and high annoyance factor thanks to the fact that they automatically play and continuously loop with no ‘stop’ option, the GIF is now even more popular than ever. But why so?

Their widespread use is thanks to Marc Andreesen, who created the “<img>” tag in HTML when he was developing the popular Netscape Navigator web browser. The tag presented the first easy way of inserting an image into a web page. Netscape 2.0 introduced a load of new features, including animated GIFs.

Soon enough the <img> tag was the universally adopted format for inserting images, meaning that the GIF – which includes the <img> tag in its code – has spread far and wide across the web, despite its relatively poor quality compared to other media.

In fact, the ability to string together images for a video-like effect, meant that it was a no-brainer format in the 90s when bandwidth was a real issue, prohibiting video use for many.

Perhaps this explains why GIFs haven’t been usurped as a media, but why have brands and authoritative institutions recently started using them as legitimate communications tools, when in the past GIFs served little purpose but to amuse those sharing and swapping them at leisure?

The answer lies, perhaps, not with the why but with who. For many a year, companies have been scratching their heads as to how to engage with an increasingly apathetic demographic; the millenials.

Arguably, it’s a combination of the popularity of Twitter, Memes and Vine amongst this group which has lead brands to adopt the GIF as a form of communication. Akin to the hashtag, the use of GIFs has developed to convey a multitude of things; emphasising a point, indicating a reaction, to support or undermine someone else – in one fell swoop. If pictures speak 1000 words, then GIFs speak 1,000,000.

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Undoubtedly, a well selected GIF can perfectly encompass everything that wants to be said, without having to type a thing. In a time-poor society, it’s easy to see why this has become so popular. In no small part thanks to the fact that with everyone spending more and more time connecting virtually, sometimes it’s nice to have some variety from the constant word-based interaction of IMing, emailing and texting.

In a similar vein, when timing is relevant for something to be funny, pressing play on a video is one step too far to getting the punchline. Timing is everything for humour to work and GIFs are perfect because they are instant.

This helps to somewhat explain why big brands are using GIFs; they are providing that punchline that millenials look for in discussions and rhetoric using a format that they are familiar and comfortable with. It also doesn’t hurt that the GIF is supported by most browsers, and is not technically challenging for users.

Some authorities that are using the GIF to their advantage include the United States’ Judiciary Committee, the White House and Channel 4.

Clearly, the context of the conversation provides meaning to the GIF, and brands have to be wary of that – it is easy to misunderstand the tone of a conversation, especially online. Companies should make sure that they truly understand their target audience and the conversations that are happening before contributing – whilst particularly true for GIFs, that fact is true for any media.

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Clearly the GIF is here to stay, what with the almighty Google using them as comment and even in official statements, but what’s your opinion? Is it brands’ way of dumbing-down important issues to an extent to which they are no longer taken seriously by anyone, or an inspired way for companies to engage with an increasingly disengaged group of people? Let us know your thoughts.

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