Gasp: Twitter GIFs Aren’t Actually GIFs

surprised andy

What’s in a format? Does that which we call a GIF by any other name invoke just as many lols?

Just yesterday, Twitter started supporting animated GIFs. But there’s a catch! What Twitter ends up showing you isn’t actually a GIF at all. EVERYBODY PAAANIIIIIIC.

Note: don’t actually panic. This isn’t a bad thing. Quite the contrary.

As noticed by the folks over at Embedly, the “GIFs” that end up in your Twitter feed aren’t actually GIFs at all. They’re technically not even really image files in a strict sense — they’re more like video files without sound. They’re MP4s, embedded with the HTML5 video tag. Even if you upload a GIF, it’s converted into an MP4.

While the GIF/MP4 difference may seem trivial, it’s actually a pretty damned smart move on Twitter’s part. Why? Compression, compression, compression.

You see, for all of its ubiquity and seemingly recent popularity, the GIF is an antique. It was introduced in 1987, picked up animation support around 1989, and… hasn’t really changed since. The upside? It works pretty much everywhere. The downside? The format is nearly 30 friggin’ years old, and its age shows in maaaany ways. That’s why lots of GIFs are just a few seconds long with awful color, yet many megabytes large.

Video compression, meanwhile, has come a pretty long way in the past 30 years. An MP4 can be twice as smooth and thrice as pretty, but still come in at a quarter the file size.

For Twitter, that means lower bandwidth bills. For you, that means less waiting around for GIFs to load.

Are there drawbacks? Sure. Some browsers don’t play friendly with HTML5’s video tag yet, so Twitter would have to fallback to something else in those cases. (Oddly, as far as I can tell, Twitter is falling back to Flash there.) Some browsers also make it a bit less straightforward to save MP4s for later resharing. But over the next few years, we’ll probably see the switch from GIF to MP4 become fairly commonplace.

That raises the question: what do we call these little looping bits of silent animation, if they’re not actually GIF files anymore?

Most people don’t care about the technical implementations of one thing versus another – they just want an easy-to-remember word for whatever they’re referring to. And once that name gets popular? Changing its usage is like trying to move a mountain by yelling at it. See: “Xerox” for photocopies, “Photoshop” for photo editing, or “Googling” for “not using Bing”. Half a decade from now, will the term “GIF” have been abstracted to mean anything short, silent, and looping?