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The Rise and Fall and Rise of GIFs: A History
Mar 9. 2016

The GIF has nine lives. Did you know it’s 29 years old? It’s older than the internet and most of the people who use it.

When Steve Wilhite invented it in 1987, as an engineer for CompuServe, even he didn’t know what it would eventually become. He had no idea he would win a Lifetime Achievement Webby.

(Side note: it’s amazing that the Internet has been around long enough to have lifetime achievement awards. I feel old.)

In the 1990s, a GIF was a dancing baby, a dancing banana, basically a lot of odd things dancing. It was a way to attach an 8-bit image with motion to an email. They were cute and anything looked better in comparison to Clip Art.

But eventually the novelty wore off and so did GIF popularity. By the late ‘90s, AOL Instant Messenger had emojis and people forgot about GIFs.

Then in the early- to mid-2000s, Myspace led a GIF resurgence. Myspace pages were easy to personalize and a GIF could express a lot of things. Once again, GIFs were a go-to for driving engagement.

The problem with Myspace is that it became too cluttered with odd widgets, songs that played when you accessed a page and 17 GIFs all playing at once. None of us had self-control. That clutter lost out to the clean, simple, and GIF-free Facebook. By the late 2000s, Myspace was gone and so were GIFs.

Then in the early 2010s, Tumblr and Reddit began using more GIFs. A GIF was an easier way to say something in a comments section or make an interesting Tumblr post. To this generation it was different, part of a subculture that was fine with low-quality images that usually elicited a laugh. It worked.

Then in 2012, Alex Chung and Jake Cooke had an idea over drinks. Chung who had sold a social network, Fridge, to Google was not working at the time. The two discussed how important GIFs would be as people looked for alternatives to text to express emotions. At the time, GIFs were still hard to find. To Chung’s surprise he could not find a good way to search for and share GIFs. So he and Cooke built GIPHY.

GIPHY, called “hilariously bad” by Gizmodo in its first year, has now become the genesis for widespread GIF distribution. It’s hard to see GIFs becoming this popular and widespread without easy access to them. As GIPHY progressed, GIFs were increasingly used for Tweets. In 2015, Twitter users shared over 100 million GIFs.

Also in 2015, Facebook began allowing users to search for and post GIFs directly in Messenger. Facebook, which was once the go-to destination because it didn’t have GIFs, was now the preferred social network to find and share GIFs.

And that’s why Twitter introduced GIF search on February 17. I finally got my hands on it a few days ago and it’s a game-changer. Before I had to go to GIPHY, download the GIF, then upload the GIF to a tweet. That’s too many steps. My present self laughs really hard at my month ago self.

Companies, politicians, and movie studios now work directly with GIPHY to curate the right content. But why all the sudden interest in GIFs by marketers? Response rates. In marketing, always follow the response rates. There is no coincidence why marketers are moving to organic content creators and GIFs. They are seeing results.

According to Marketing Sherpa, posts with GIFs increase conversion rates by 103 percent and total revenue by 109 percent. Now all this marketing noise about GIFs makes complete sense.

GIFs still have competition though. Emojis are always simple to use, Facebook introduced five new Reactions (alongside the ubiquitous like), and social content is moving away from text and images to video. As Snapchat and live streaming increases in social, the GIF could lose value. But that’s a of couple years from now. For now, the GIF is on top and continuing to grow.

Long live the GIF.


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