Actually, the GIF Is Dying

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It may have been named "word of the year," but as an image format, the GIF has never been less popular.

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Oxford American Dictionaries has named GIF, the acronym for graphical image format, its word of the year. "Like so many other relics of the 80s, it has never been trendier," said the head of US dictionaries at the press.

Now, it's certainly true that animated GIFs, images that display an endless loop of frames, have enjoyed a renaissance in the 2010s, even playing a prominent role in the just-completed US presidential election. But it's worth noting that, as an image format, GIF has never been less popular.

The Internet Archive keeps track of this. According to its HTTP Archive, GIFs now comprise 29% of all images on the web's million most popular sites, down from 41% two years ago. At this rate, GIFs could practically disappear from the web by the end of this decade.

There's a good explanation for this, having nothing to do with the retro-cool animations that have found their way back into web culture. GIF is simply not a great image format: colors aren't very sharp, and the files can be enormous. GIF,created in 1987, shows its age. PNG is more flexible and generally results in better image quality, which is why it has stolen 10% of the web from GIF since 2010--now comprising 26% of all images--and will soon become the number-two format.

JPEG, which compresses images with a slight loss of quality, remains the web's leading format, at 44% of all images, and hasn't lost any share to GIF or PNG over the past two years. Its reign may be threatened, however: as ever-improving screens, like the "retina display" on some new Apple products, demand higher-resolution images, JPEGs could prove too large. That would set the stage for PNG, which uses a compression technique that doesn't require a patent, to dominate the next generation of the web.

Of course, GIF is the only format that supports animation. So as long as there's demand for high-fiving cats, the GIF will never quite die...

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(Here are the data I collected from the HTTP Archive.)

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Zachary M. Seward is a senior editor at Quartz. He previously worked at The Wall Street Journal and Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab. He teaches digital journalism at NYU.

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