The Extraordinary History of GIFs (and How to Use Them Today)

Going through the history of GIFs

Zight | September 24, 2020 | 10 min read time

Article Last Updated: July 23, 2023

The Extraordinary History of GIFs (and How to Use Them Today)

Since 1987, GIFs have been the gifts that keep on giving.

Not only do the 1 billion+ GIFs that are posted daily provide comic relief in Slack and social media, but GIFs have also been tremendously useful — some would even say pivotal — in a broader business sense. From effectively distilling then delivering information to audiences, to radically bolstering a business’ content marketing efforts, the only limitation for how GIFs can be used in business is imagination.

But, considering the GIF’s humble (read: incredibly basic) beginnings, how did it become the undeniably powerful tool that it is now? And more importantly, how can GIFs be best created and used for today’s modern audience?

Buckle up, because you’re about to find out everything you need to know to become a GIF-making pro.

The A-Z of the GIF’s history

The acronym ‘GIF’ stands for Graphics Interchange Format, and was created by the team at CompuServe, an online service provider. Steve Wilhite, who was at the helm of the team in 1987, created the GIF to help computers quickly display color images without taking up too much bandwidth.

At the time — bear in mind the World Wide Web hadn’t even been implemented yet — modem speeds were woefully slow. Average speeds were around 300 bauds, which contemporary broadband speeds are lightyears ahead of, comparatively-speaking. It’s no wonder those in the computing world began to widely adopt the GIF format to create, upload, and share images.

What also propelled the GIF’s initial rise to fame was that the GIF helped images be seen across various computer brands. Computers were being sold by a motley crew of tech companies, from IBM to Commodore, Apple to Atari. While there wasn’t such a monopoly on computer sales as there is now, it did lead to a fundamental problem: Each had a different way of displaying graphics. The GIF, however, rectified this issue, enabling Atari users to see an image that had been made on an Apple computer, and vice versa.

One crucial part of the story I haven’t yet mentioned, though, is this: GIFs, at the time, weren’t animated like they are now. They were mostly completely still images. If they were animated, they were more akin to digital flipbooks.

The GIF started to resemble modern, eternally-moving GIFs in 1995, thanks to Netscape — which was the most popular internet browser back in the day, before being usurped by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer — after they added functionality enabling GIFs to loop endlessly. With the ability to create looping graphics and upload them to the web via dial-up, web users got creative. And weird.

Exhibit A is Dancing Girl, with this version being created by Chuck Poynter — a legendary GIF-maker and distributor. Exhibit B is the infamous Dancing Baby, which Poynter also had some involvement in.

After the mid-90s, GIFs became must-haves for web pages. GIFs were added to personal GeoCities sites (which were hosted for free), transforming boring text-based pages into ones that were chock-full of visual character and humor. You couldn’t spend 15 minutes on the internet without inadvertently stumbling across a GIF.

But then the GIF began to fall out of vogue.

The comeback of the GIF (with a hard G)

Evolution, as with all things but particularly when it comes to technology, means the predecessors get trampled over. And when Flash and HTML5 came onto the scene, it was the GIF’s popularity that fell.

For a little while.

Smartphones became increasingly commonplace in the same time period, with Blackberry and T-Mobile taking the initial lead, but then Apple winning the hearts and wallets of consumers. In fact, by 2010, 300 million smartphones were sold worldwide. With Web 3.0, lightning-fast internet speeds, social media, and everything being searchable and doable from the palm of your hand, it may seem like there was no place left for the GIF.

But thanks to the GIF’s inherent form, enabling people to express emotions, thoughts, reactions, or instructions quickly and easily, it didn’t just survive in the interconnected, social media-centered smartphone era: It thrived.

GIFs, again, were everywhere, just like in the mid-90s. Graphical GIFs and photographic GIFs alike were in tweets, marketing emails, Facebook posts, SaaS blog posts, help site articles — you name it. Everything from characters in TV shows to real-life politicians became GIF-worthy, and everyone who had access to the internet became acquainted with what a GIF was, how to send them, and when to use them in lieu or in addition to text. ‘GIF’ even became the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2012.

The GIF’s prevalence reached such dizzying heights that there was even fierce debate about how to pronounce ‘GIF’ (which is still ongoing, somewhat). StackOverflow, a site that caters to the developer community as well as the tech-minded, conducted a poll on how ‘GIF’ should be pronounced as part of their 2017 Developer Survey. The poll’s results showed that 65.6% of people pronounce it with a hard G, while 35% pronounce it with a soft G.

Jay Hanlon, who’s now the Chief of Staff and VP of People, Ops, and Partnerships at Process Street, oversaw parts of the 2017 Developer Survey’s production. In a recent conversation, Jay told me his feelings on the poll:

Often, there’s no need to pick one “right” approach, and it’s more useful to embrace different perspectives!

But not in this case.

GIF stands for GRAPHICS Interface Format. So the ‘G’ makes a “Guh” sound, like it does in “Graphics”. If you try to say ‘Graphics’ with a “juh” sound, it sounds like ‘Giraffe-ics’. Unless there’s some Giraffics Interface Format out there that I’m unaware of, the 35% who pronounce it like the peanut butter is dangerously wrong and must be stopped.”

How to pronounce ‘GIF’ still, clearly, divides us.

But what doesn’t divide us so dramatically is how we feel about the GIF, either as viewers of GIFs or as members of customer support teams putting them in live chat responses (when appropriate), or as members of content marketing teams, using them in content (again, when appropriate).

Speaking of appropriateness, from a business perspective, when are GIFs best used to connect with, inform, instruct, or humor your audience?

Let’s take a look.

How to use GIFs today: In a feature release post

According to research undertaken by Neilsen, 27% of consumers report they wish more products would make their life easier. If you’re operating in the SaaS space and releasing new features and product updates, you’re aiming to do exactly that — make things easier.

Publishing a feature release post is your opportunity to announce to the world your nifty, new feature. To boot, as Pulkit Agrawal at Chameleon explains:

The benefits of a good feature announcement product marketing strategy are huge:

  • Reduce churn by re-engaging users that are evaluating competitors or unsatisfied with existing limitations.
  • Improve loyalty by proving to your existing users that you are listening to their needs and moving quickly.
  • Boost retention by getting users hooked on a feature that helps them become more successful.”

But current users, subscribers, and potential customers won’t get the impression you’re trying to help if you’re asking them to wade through a text-heavy feature release, especially if it provides no visual instructions on how to use the new feature or product update in question.

That’s where the handy GIF comes in.

Process Street’s content marketing team made heavy use of GIFs in our feature release post for Approvals, a feature that streamlines teams’ decision-making. Our graphic designer worked on a longer-length GIF that demonstrates the use case of Approvals, while I made in-app GIFs to clearly instruct users what to click, when, and why.

The result?

Our audience has to read hardly anything to get a full, comprehensive understanding of what the feature is and how to use it themselves — they can kick back and watch the GIFs!

How to use GIFs today: In email marketing

GIFs, being the versatile creatures they are, can be used in a variety of ways when it comes to email marketing.

To help capture readers’ attention and better sell a product, a GIF that spotlights the product at hand can be surprisingly beneficial. On the flip side, by opening up or closing an email out with a GIF, it can further audience engagement (and the GIF doesn’t have to necessarily be tied to your product or business, either; it could be tied to pop culture).

Now, I can’t just state that GIFs can have a surprisingly beneficial effect on email marketing without explaining why, can I?

Here’s what happened with Dell.

Dell was preparing to release its Dell XPS 12 Convertible Ultrabook which, as its name implies, is a laptop that easily transforms into a tablet (and vice versa). At the time, it was a novel product; laptops were laptops, and tablets were tablets, not both. It was innovative, sure, but it also could’ve been a little confusing for some consumers to wrap their heads around.

In an attempt to instantly and clearly demonstrate what the convertible laptop-tablet hybrid was capable of, the team at Dell had to get creative with a GIF. Text wasn’t going to suffice, and not everybody was going to hit ‘Play’ on a video embedded in the email.

Luckily, the inclusion of the GIF — which shows a laptop rotating into a tablet, then back into a laptop again — worked.

Allison Banko reports that Dell’s first-ever GIF-centered email marketing campaign generated a:

  • 6% increase in open rate.
  • 42% increase in click rate.
  • 103% increase in conversion rate.
  • 109% increase in revenue.

If I were holding a mic, this is when I’d drop it on behalf of Dell.

How to use GIFs today: In social media

If you’re active on Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like, you already know that GIFs are used in abundance on social media. But did you know that 65% of people are visual learners, making the GIF the perfect medium for presenting information quickly, and especially on platforms where users are putting out material at breakneck speed?

Again, the only limit to how and when GIFs can be used in social media is imagination.

Here’s just one example, focusing on Killer Visual Strategies, a visual communication agency.

To promote their ebooks and blog posts on visual content marketing, they wrote a tweet. But being a visual communication agency, they weren’t just going to use text, were they?

The tweet was accompanied by this brilliantly-designed, brand-aligned, but ultimately simplistic GIF which included MIT’s statistic that the brain can process images in just 13 milliseconds.

The GIF is doing a ton of work here. It reinforces Killer Visual Strategies’ branding, it has great sharing potential due to the MIT statistic being incorporated, and it’s far more attention-grabbing than text is, helping to increase click-through rates. But this is just one GIF, in one tweet. To boot, it’s an asset that wouldn’t have taken too much time to create by any means.

Imagine all the good that’d happen if GIFs always accompanied a business’ most crucial social media promo posts, helped showcase all new features or products, and always supplemented customer help messages…

And that’s just in terms of external communication. Internally, GIFs could help with client and/or employee onboarding, knowledge sharing, and help with building team collaboration.

Sounds ideal, right?

Well, with Zight (formerly CloudApp)’s GIF Maker, creating, saving, and sharing GIFs is a breeze!

How to easily create GIFs with Zight (formerly CloudApp)

First, download Zight (formerly CloudApp) from (or Apple’s App Store or the Microsoft Windows Store, depending on the devices you use).

Then, sign up for an account (it takes mere seconds) and log in.

Once you have Zight (formerly CloudApp) and you’re signed in to your account, you can begin screen recording either by clicking on the app’s icon and navigating to the GIF button, or by pressing Cmd+Shift+6 on your keyboard as a Mac user, or Alt+Shift+6 as a Windows user.

Simply choose if you want to record your entire screen or a specific part of the screen, using your mouse to click and specify.

When you’re ready to start recording, just press ‘Start’. Press ‘Pause’ if you need to pause and change what the GIF Maker is recording, and press ‘Finish’ once you’re done with filming.

You can then edit the GIF as needed, and get straight to sharing the link, copying the content, or downloading the file from the cloud.

That’s it; done. Zight (formerly CloudApp) can also help you create other visuals with its screen recorder and screenshot tool

As mentioned at the beginning of the post, the GIF has been with us for over a whopping 30 years. It’s shifted and altered with the times, with people continuously finding new uses for the nifty, looping format. And considering how well-loved GIFs are in 2020, it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere soon, especially as more of us are beginning to work from home.

Armed with Zight (formerly CloudApp) and all the information you’ve ever needed on the GIF, I can’t wait to see what GIFs your business will create. Who knows, the touch-hologram history books of 2060 may even include your GIFs as examples!

Thom James Carter works at Process Street, where he writes about processes, systems, SaaS, and all things tech. You can follow him on Twitter @thomjamescarter.

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