A seal, lying on its side, covers its eyes with its paws.

Hey, what GIFs?

Ever been lost for words? Of course! We all have. But when we’re together, our faces and gestures often pretty much say everything that’s needed. Over messaging and social media? Not so much. But, in the venerable tradition of the brilliantly creative human race, we’ve found a way to fill the awkward online communication gap – through emojis, memes and, of course, the humble GIF.

Who hasn’t used a GIF? Let’s face it, those looping clips and animations are pure fun! From the infamous ‘overexcited birthday girl’ to ‘Jean-Luc Picard’s facepalm’, no one is immune to the charms of a great GIF. They feel like they’ve been with us forever, but actually, they celebrate a birthday too – and, incredibly, it actually pre-dates the internet. Back in June 1987, two years before any kind of commercial connectivity, developer Steve Wilhite and his team at CompuServe had a thorny problem to solve. They wanted to send images via email or file transfer (which, at the time, was pretty much the only way to do so) but sending colour files was a memory-intensive exercise. They needed something smaller. Wilhite invented an algorithm that compressed images while maintaining 8-bit colour, calling it the ‘Graphic Interchange Format’ and inadvertently welcoming to the world a format that would go on to give the human race major LOLS.

However, the animated GIFs that we know and love today weren’t really used until the internet took off in the early nineties. Why? They simply weren’t particularly necessary. But, as it turned out (and older readers will remember this well), their compression, colour and looping video became the early image standard for the ‘World Wide Web’. Anyone remember the endless ‘website under construction’ GIFs of builders with hard hats and waving Pikachu’s of the early nineties, when Angelfire and Geocities sites were all the rage?

An animated GIF saying ‘shot on Canon’ in black and red text on a white background.
Many social platforms let you add stickers to your ‘stories’ and plenty of big names, including Canon, have fun animations you can add to your posts.

How things have changed. Those low-res screens have given way to incredible clarity and clunky beige boxes to handheld devices of immense power. Today, the amount of content that lends itself to GIF-ing is absolutely extraordinary. The most popular GIF finding platform, Giphy now has a search function within WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and numerous other social media or messaging services. As a result, it serves up an astonishing billion GIFs every day. That’s a testament to the subtlety, complexity and ingenuity of the online human experience. And there is a seemingly never-ending supply.

But it’s not all cute sloths and confused Kanye. The GIF can also be a superb asset for businesses. When you’re trying to cut through the noise of the internet and get a message across, the human brain can apparently process images at 60,000 times the rate of text. This means that GIFs are brilliantly handy when you want to share product benefit, for example. Or as a fun, shareable clip that also subtly doubles as an ad. Retailers often use them in teaser content, when they have a big sale or launch. Some of the most effective GIFs are actually informative and used to present data – you might have seen the moving bar charts that are used to show trends over time. They make dull content more interesting and easier to absorb. And they aren’t the reserve of the social sphere either. It’s totally ok to use them in blog content and email marketing if they are on brand and help you to get your point across.

A short clip of a surfer on a wave, progressively coming towards the camera and making a ‘peace’ sign.
Sharing a product benefit doesn’t have to be boring – this GIF shows just how close to the action you can get with Canon.

Making your own is easier than you might imagine. Giphy lets you create your own using their really simple ‘Create’ tool, where you can select still images or sections from video clips to convert into your own catchy content. Of course, you must always be conscious of image rights and permissions, but original content is always more fun to make anyway.

And finally, like ‘David Bow-ee’ or ‘David Boh-ee’*, the GIF has been subject to near endless debate on its pronunciation – GIF or JIF. Even though the final word should go to Steve Wilhite, who said that it’s absolutely pronounced with a soft g, the Oxford English Dictionary sits on the fence and says that both are totally ok.

* It’s ‘Boh-ee’, obviously.

Written by Thessa Heijmans

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