30 years of gifs: dancing babies, DJ cats, popcorn-eating stars

Gifs are gifts that keep giving. Here we chart their rise and rise in this their 30th year

The humble gif is turning 30. The multi-purpose bitmap image format has established itself as part of internet culture, so much so that people have almost stopped arguing over how it is pronounced (overwhelmingly it is with a hard g, although the inventor of the format says he meant for it to be a soft g).

The gif, or graphics interchange format, was created by programmer Steve Wilhite, who longed for an image format that could be used across different computer platforms. At the time, in 1987, this included the likes of Atari, Apple and IBM. Plus modem speeds were slow and images took a long... time... to... load.

In the beginning, gifs were mostly used as design accents for websites, before their current widespread use as the internet currency for expressions and feelings – so-called “reaction gifs”. Indeed, gifs are part of the online trend for expressing ourselves without proper words, alongside emoticons, emojis and abbreviations. The cry-laugh emoji was named Oxford Dictionaries’ US “word” of the year in 2015, but “gif” took this honour in 2012.

Meanwhile, Facebook added gifs to Messenger in 2015, and to celebrate the big 3-o will add them to comments. Even Twitter, which is well known for introducing features absolutely nobody wants, surprised us all by adding the in-platform gif function in 2016. Gif keyboards are also now common, with Apple adding one to Messages in iOS 10 and Google's Gboard launched with gif support in 2016. The expansion in web-based, app and downloadable gif editors means many more people are making their own gifs too, with pre-existing ones catalogued in online repositories such as Giphy.


So, where does the gif go from here? Well, there have been some pretty darn creative innovations in the format to the point it is becoming a legitimate art medium in its own right, with IRL exhibitions and everything.

In honour of the gif’s exit from its heady 20s, here are some examples

Cool cats

It's the only place to start, really. Here are our favourite partying felines for your pleasure. There are lots more where that came from.

Deal with it

Deal-with-it gifs have been around a long time, and are now so popular that list pieces have collated the best ones. They usually consist of a pair of pixelated sunglasses dropping onto a nonchalant character imploring the viewer to, well, “deal with it”. The first use was a version with an animated dog back in 2010 on the site Dump.fm. But I am particularly fond of the Ferris Bueller inspired version above.

Dancing baby

The slightly scary dancing baby was born way back in 1996 by two animators at a video games company. A fellow worker at LucasArts emailed a video of the animation around the office and, boom, the baby became a phenomenon via email chains. It even appeared in the late-90s legal drama Ally McBeal as one of the neurotic McBeal’s recurring hallucinations.

Michael Jackson eating popcorn

The popcorn-eating trope is a well known reaction to observing a good old online argument or Twitter beef. Fortunately, there are many popcorn-eating gifs. Unfortunately, virtually everyone on Twitter chooses the first available on its gif menu, which is the Jackson version (taken from his video for Thriller). Second most popular is Jon Stewart eating popcorn.

Dumpster fire

"Dumpster fire", shorthand for complete disaster, is truly a term for our times. In particular, a gif of a dumpster fire in Los Angeles was wildly shared in the run-up to Donald Trump winning the 2016 election. Another popular fire-themed reaction gif is a scene from Community in which Donald Glover arrives, pizza in hand, at a burning apartment.

David Bowie’s ch-ch-changes

Helen Green is a British illustrator, and in 2016 went viral with her gif featuring drawings of every single one of Bowie’s hairstyles from 1964-2014.

All cinemagraphs

One of the most beautiful gif forms is the cinemagraph, which features a single animated element in an otherwise static shot. There are way too many examples, from traffic moving along New York streets to milk being poured into coffee, but all of them are transfixing.

Thieving raccoon

A favourite is the cunning raccoon stealing food from underneath the noses of two cats before scampering away. This cat-burglar was popularised circa 2013 on social sites Imgur and Reddit, where it took off on r/AnimalsBeingJerks. Of course people have had fun with it, adding their own narrations. It still raises a smile. – (Guardian Service)