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Telling GIFs From Animated JPEGs

Olia Lialina

First things first: I am not the author of “the first GIF ever,” despite Google’s misinterpretation of my words, or the retro black-and-white esthetics of the first ever animated GIF I made.11 See the article by Fernando Alfonso III, “The Animated History of the GIF, the Internet’s Favorite Format,” Dailydot, (June 2015), which is responsible for the confusion, This myth began to spread through articles and forums and made it back to the top Google search results. I am being introduced as the creator of GIFs and, within a few years, will probably enter the annals of history as the founder of this format. To counter this, I would like to finally put in zeros and ones my answer to the frequent question, “Did you really made the first GIF ever?” which is “No, of course not!” The format had been around for almost a decade: ten months before the Window.gif was published in 1996 everyone and their sibling was making and using them on the Web. GIFs were already beginning to be questioned and mocked as early as the last half of 1996, and it was only one year after that before they began to be abandoned and erased.

This timeline was still present in cultural memory a decade ago, but in 2020 one must specifically make mention of it, in order to remember what came before animated GIFs made their glorious comeback during the first wave of “netstalgia” in the early 2010s.22 For more on the topic of “netstalgia,” see Olia Lialina, GeoCities’ Afterlife and Web History, (2019), The Web is getting older: older than PhD candidates writing about its history, which is evolving in an increasingly homogeneous manner. Web users and researchers develop shortsightedness very quickly, and not just because they spend a lot of time in front of a screen. We are still under the curse of “Netscape Time,” the paradigm in which everything changes rapidly and is updated radically, thus deleting previous versions of everything from memory (be it computer or human).33 “‘Netscape Time’ was a term we came to apply to the speed at which we developed products and, by extension, the relentlessness of the work involved. But the effortlessness of Web use is also an aspect of Netscape Time,” James H. Clark, Netscape Time, (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000), 65. Online, everything that is not here and now constitutes history. The years 2006 and 2016 are as distant in memory as is the year 1996. GeoCities, Myspace, and Tumbler all constitute that which existed before let’s say, TikTok, and, in a year or two, TikTok will be superceded by the next new killer app.

Along with the rapid turnover of applications and services, the way we perceive the World Wide Web also evolves, but generally we do not perceive it. The Web has become the underlying technology for many other things—apps, experiences, AI—even as it has lost its sign…