The rise of the Gif: How a mere file extension became a format for emotional expression

Rhodri Marsden explores the rise of the Gif, the lo-fi image format that's become a way to encapsulate mood for millions

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On one level, the Gif, or graphics interchange format, is a mere file suffix, such as .jpg or .doc. The images are grainy and limited to 256 colours. But what began as a compression technique to make image files smaller has become a means of expression for millions of people.

Every second of every day, people use engines such as Tenor and Giphy to search for animated Gifs – usually of reactions by celebrities –  that perfectly match their mood. These search engines have become both a barometer of public emotion and a window into a person's feelings. That kind of information has great value these days. Facebook, when it bought Giphy last week, put a price on it: $400 million (Dh1.5 billion).

The rise of Gif has been unusual. It was invented by a team at Compuserve – one of the first US internet service providers – in 1987, two years before the birth of the World Wide Web. Reducing the file size of images was crucial in the days of grindingly slow modems, and in the web’s infancy they were used liberally (some might say grotesquely) to liven up otherwise dull pages of text. Gifs soon gained the ability to animate and loop, but their basic format has not changed for decades.

Their function, however, has.

The knack of these images in grabbing the eye made them the perfect advertising format; Gif banner adverts were used in billions during the dotcom boom. More sophisticated, shinier animation formats such as Flash would eventually make Gifs look old hat, but the dawn of social media and websites such as Reddit and Tumblr gave them a new lease of life. Images of American actors Orson Welles clapping earnestly and Leonardo DiCaprio raising a glass would become part of the web lexicon (describing sarcastic appreciation and ironic celebration, respectively). In a few animated frames of pop culture, Gifs could say things that were too tedious to describe in words.

The Gif of Orson Welles clapping is popularly used as a mode of self expression.
The Gif of Orson Welles clapping is popularly used as a mode of self expression.

"When you think of the whole history of how human beings communicate with each other, it's face-to-face," Alex Magnin, Giphy's head of revenue, told marketing publication AdAge. "[What this] is about is human desire to make your communication richer, more visually expressive, more nuanced."

The company's creator, Alex Chung, realised in 2013 that people were searching for a Gif, coming back to a messaging app and pasting it in. Giphy and its competitors became repositories for those files, and access was incorporated directly by the way of custom keyboards. As a result, Gif's popularity surged. Magnin puts the number of searches on his company's platform at more than a billion per day. These searches are not for things, or facts, but emotion and affect.

[What this] is about is human desire to make your communication richer, more visually expressive, more nuanced

Kate Miltner, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, has had a long-standing interest in Gif culture. Her 2015 project about a Gif keyboard designed for the TV show RuPaul's Drag Race made it clear to her how valuable the associated data was. "One of the key goals from the app was to collect user data – specifically, how many conversations were happening, what content was being used the most frequently and by whom," she says.

Giphy will be now doing that data gathering across many platforms. From the teenage obsessions of TikTok to the corporate communications of Slack, any Gif searches will now route back to Facebook. It provides the Silicon Valley giant not only with crucial data, but also a means to serve advertising. Companies such as Nestle, Nissan and KFC pay to promote branded Gifs ahead of the rest of the pack. "Take search data plus behavioural data to help serve users the Gif that fits their particular emotion, and voila – people are now using your [subtly] branded content to express their own emotions," says Miltner. We are effectively advertising to each other.

The Gif will retain its decades-old capacity to delight and amuse

It is little wonder then why Google (which bought Tenor in 2018) and Facebook are keen to become custodians of Gif. Facebook is looking forward to making "your everyday conversations more fun", it says. That is undoubtedly true; the Gif will retain its decades-old capacity to delight and amuse. But its new role in the social media ecosystem represents, says Miltner, a "multi-level commodification of emotional expression, on the most intimate level".