What is a GIF?

What is a GIF File?

Ah, the GIF. We’ve all seen them. They populate the Internet on blogs and social media and are part of what makes news and entertainment sites like Buzzfeed very popular.

When a GIF is used with the right content, it can go viral, which is why it has become a powerful marketing tool. Whether you are using it on Twitter, your blog, website or other social media channel, you can now create one easily. There are plenty of free and premium online tools which let you create GIF files quickly, but before you get started, what is a GIF file?

What is a GIF File?

A GIF (with the file extension, .gif) is basically an image file format that is animated by combining several other images or frames into a single file. This single file is encoded as graphics interchange format (better known as GIF). Unlike the JPEG image format (.jpg), GIFs typically use a compression algorithm referred to as LZW encoding that does not degrade the image quality and allows for easy storing of the file in bytes.

The multiple images within a single GIF file are displayed in succession to create an animated clip or a short movie. By default, animated GIFs display the sequence of images only once, stopping when the last image or frame is displayed, although it can also loop endlessly or stop after a few sequences.

And when GIF was in its infancy, this is basically what we did with it. Enter dancing baby …

Dancing Baby GIF


But social sites like Tumblr and GIF creation tools like Giphy gained in popularity more recently and a GIF can be an effective and low-impact replacement for a video and, essentially, valuable as a business tool.

What Does a GIF Do?

GIFs are often used for bite-sized entertainment and as statements, replies or comments in online conversations. They are also commonly used online to convey reactions, illustrate or explain concepts or products in a fun, creative and succinct way, and also to make GIF art.

Take, for example, this visually striking form of GIF art by Graphics artist Kevin Burg and photographer Jamie Beck, depicting a scene at a New York Fashion Week. In an interview with Time magazine, Beck likened it to freezing time and letting a single moment live, breathe.

Not surprisingly, the popularity of GIFs now defines the Internet’s lexicon, legitimized by Oxford Dictionary naming it the Word of the Year in 2012. And GIF art, itself, is legitimized by contemporary art galleries and institutions like the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City that showcase the best GIF art pieces by talented young graphics artists.

Abigail Posner, Head of Strategic Planning and Agency Development at Google, writing in Fast Company says animated GIFs and other such visual media like memes “reconnect us to an essential part of ourselves.”

Functions of GIFsDescription
Bite-Sized EntertainmentGIFs provide quick and entertaining content that captures viewers' attention and delivers humor or amusement.
Statements, Replies, and CommentsOften used in online conversations as concise responses, reactions, or comments, adding a visual element to discussions.
Illustrating and Explaining Concepts/ProductsGIFs are effective for visually conveying ideas, concepts, or product features in a creative and succinct manner.
GIF ArtGIFs are used as a medium for artistic expression, creating visually striking and thought-provoking animations.
Popularity in Internet CultureGIFs have become a defining element of internet culture, shaping online communication and expressions.
Recognition by Oxford DictionaryIn 2012, the Oxford Dictionary named "GIF" as the Word of the Year, highlighting its cultural significance.
Legitimacy in Art InstitutionsContemporary art galleries and institutions recognize GIF art, showcasing the work of talented graphic artists.
Reconnecting Through Visual MediaVisual media like animated GIFs and memes have the power to reconnect individuals with their creative instincts.

Who Developed and Invented the GIF?

The GIF graphics file format was created by Steve Wilhite in 1987 at CompuServe. In the years since, a debate has been raging as to the correct way to pronounce “GIF”: Is it pronounced “jif” as in the peanut butter, or “gif” with a hard ‘G’ as in “gift?”

Most people pronounce it “gif” with a hard ‘G’, but Wilhite, who was honored with a Webby Lifetime Achievement award in 2013 for inventing the GIF format, insists it is pronounced as “jif.”

“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Mr. Wilhite said. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

If you want more proof, watch Wilhite’s acceptance at the Webby awards below.

Business Uses and Applications for a GIF?

GIF has become the calling card of modern Internet culture. Businesses — large and small — have embraced the file format and use it to liven up their messages online. Many savvy businesses, for example, edit, rearrange or combine one or more video sources to create an absurd juxtaposition designed deliberately to emphasize a minor detail or fire off a quick market commentary.

Aside from using GIFs as a medium for humorous effect and to show a fun, likable company culture, many brands and creative agencies commonly create GIFs that have commercial messages and seamless advertisements, such as banners and leaderboards. A seamless product 360-rotation demo can also be a highly effective animation. It helps illustrate the product design and generate interest.

Moreover, GIF file format is supported by nearly all Web browsers and Apple’s iOS also supports GIF  but not its rival Flash. So GIF has become popular with brands marketing on social media, news media and the mobile Web. A looping GIF perfectly embedded into an article and published at just the right places can deliver your message powerfully.

Several image editing programs like Adobe Photoshop, GIMP and Microsoft GIF Animator can be used to create simple animated GIFs that spread short company videos or messages across the Web.

If you’d like to create and share videos longer than a few seconds, however, you might want to use the MPEG format because the GIF format is not as efficient with video clips longer than a few seconds.

What is a GIF?

GIF Creation and Tools

Creating GIFs can be a fun and creative process. There are various tools available to help you bring your ideas to life. Here are some key points about GIF creation and tools:

  • GIF Creation Tools: Numerous online and offline tools make GIF creation accessible to everyone. Some popular online platforms include Giphy, Imgflip, and Make a GIF, while software like Adobe Photoshop and GIMP offer more advanced capabilities.
  • Video to GIF Conversion: You can convert video clips into GIFs using specialized software or online converters. This allows you to capture short moments from videos and share them as GIFs.
  • GIF Customization: GIF creation tools often provide features to customize your GIFs. You can add captions, stickers, effects, and control the speed and duration of animations.
  • Social Media Integration: Many social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, allow you to share GIFs directly. You can use GIFs to engage with your audience and convey messages effectively.
  • GIFs in Marketing: GIFs are increasingly used in digital marketing campaigns. Brands create GIFs to promote products, demonstrate features, or entertain their audience on social media and websites.
  • User-Generated GIFs: Encouraging user-generated content in the form of GIFs can be a creative way to engage your community and generate buzz around your brand or product.
  • GIF Copyright and Attribution: When using GIFs created by others, be aware of copyright and licensing issues. Some GIFs are available under creative commons licenses, while others may require attribution to the creator.
GIF Creation and ToolsDescription
GIF Creation Tools- Various online and offline tools are available for creating GIFs. - Online platforms like Giphy, Imgflip, Make a GIF, and software like Adobe Photoshop and GIMP offer different levels of capabilities.
Video to GIF Conversion- Specialized software and online converters enable the conversion of video clips into GIFs. - Ideal for capturing short moments from videos and sharing them as GIFs.
GIF Customization- GIF creation tools offer customization features. - Users can add captions, stickers, effects, and control animation speed and duration.
Social Media Integration- Many social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, support direct sharing of GIFs. - GIFs are effective for engaging with audiences and conveying messages.
GIFs in Marketing- GIFs are increasingly used in digital marketing campaigns. - Brands utilize GIFs for product promotion, feature demonstration, and entertainment on social media and websites.
User-Generated GIFs- Encouraging user-generated GIF content can engage the community and create buzz around a brand or product.
GIF Copyright and Attribution- Copyright and licensing considerations are crucial when using GIFs created by others. - Some GIFs have creative commons licenses, while others may require attribution to the creator.

What is a GIF?

Legal Considerations for GIF Usage

Using GIFs in various contexts, including marketing and online communication, comes with legal considerations that should not be overlooked. Here are some important legal aspects related to GIF usage:

  • Copyright and Licensing: GIFs, like other creative works, may be protected by copyright. It’s essential to ensure that you have the right to use a GIF, especially in commercial settings. Look for GIFs that are explicitly labeled for reuse, or consider creating your own to avoid copyright issues.
  • Fair Use: In some cases, you may use copyrighted GIFs under the doctrine of fair use, which allows limited use of copyrighted material for purposes like commentary, criticism, news reporting, or education. However, this can be a complex legal concept, and it’s advisable to seek legal advice if you’re unsure.
  • Attribution: Some GIF creators may require attribution when you use their work. Be sure to provide proper credit if this is a condition of use. Failure to do so could lead to copyright infringement claims.
  • Licensing Terms: Pay attention to the licensing terms associated with GIFs, especially if you plan to use them for commercial purposes. Some GIFs may have specific licensing requirements, such as providing a link to the creator’s website.
  • Trademarks and Branding: When using GIFs in a marketing context, ensure that you don’t infringe on trademarks or brand identities. Avoid using GIFs that mimic or imitate well-known brands, as this can lead to legal disputes.
  • Privacy Concerns: Be mindful of privacy issues when using GIFs that feature individuals, particularly if they haven’t provided consent to be featured in your content. Respect privacy rights and obtain necessary permissions.
  • Platform Policies: Different social media platforms and websites may have their own policies and guidelines regarding GIF usage. Familiarize yourself with these rules to avoid violating platform terms of service.
  • Legal Advice: If you have concerns about the legal implications of using GIFs in your specific context, it’s advisable to consult with legal counsel or seek guidance from intellectual property experts.

What is a GIF?


GIFs have become a ubiquitous and dynamic form of visual communication on the internet. They offer businesses and individuals a versatile tool for conveying messages, adding humor, and engaging with online audiences. GIFs can be used in various contexts, from social media marketing to online conversations, making them an essential element of modern internet culture.

However, as with any creative medium, there are important considerations to keep in mind when using GIFs. Legal aspects, such as copyright, fair use, licensing, and trademark infringement, should not be overlooked. It’s crucial to respect intellectual property rights, privacy concerns, and platform policies to ensure ethical and lawful usage.

Moreover, the process of creating GIFs has become more accessible with the availability of online tools and software. Businesses and individuals can harness these resources to unleash their creativity and effectively communicate their messages.

GIFs, in their animated and concise format, have the power to entertain, inform, and engage audiences like never before. As the internet continues to evolve, GIFs will likely remain an integral part of online communication, enhancing our ability to express ideas, reactions, and emotions in a visually compelling manner.

GIF Photo via Shutterstock

David William David William is a Staff Writer for Small Business Trends. He covers franchises, brick and mortar businesses, public policy and other small business issues. He is also founding editor of WebWriterSpotlight.