The GIF — or Graphics Interchange Format — has long been defined by silly and lighthearted contributions to online culture, but it has also gained steam as a serious and increasingly accessible storytelling tool.

In a milestone year, the compressed file format celebrated its 25th birthday and enjoyed recognition as the Oxford dictionary’s U.S. word of the year for 2012.

'The GIF has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications including research and journalism.' —Katherine Martin

The most popular GIFs shared online are typically animated, colourful, and intentionally entertaining. They feature animals doing funny things, accidental happenings and snippets from popular culture.

It's "catnip for the internet," says popular tech site Gizmodo.

But GIFs also played a role in major news stories in 2012, a large part of the reason the Oxford University Press defined the word this way:

GIF: verb. To create a GIF file of (an image or video sequence, especially relating to an event): "He GIFed the highlights of the debate."

"Like so many other relics of the '80s, [the GIF] has never been trendier," Katherine Martin, head of the U.S. Dictionaries Program at OUP, said in a statement. 

"The GIF has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications including research and journalism, and its lexical identity is transforming to keep pace."

OK, but how do I pronounce GIF?

If there's any doubt that the GIF's identity is still a bit unsettled, just consider the debate on how to pronounce the word. Hard "G" supporters battle it out with soft "G" defenders.

Oxford University Press pleased and disappointed both sides by stating that either pronunciation — jif, gif — is acceptable.

Oxford University Press highlighted the amount of GIFing done during the 2012 Olympics in London, exemplified by The Atlantic's coverage of the vault event.

The magazine wove a series of botched landings between paragraphs that referred to them, an approach that was more telling than stills and also easier on the internet connection than videos, because compressed images load more quickly. Other mainstream media outlets, like the New York Times, Business Insider and CBC News have experimented with the format in ways that would have raised eyebrows in previous years.

During the U.S. presidential election, for instance, many media outlets live-GIFed key moments and catchphrases — such as Mitt Romney's much repeated "binders full of women."

The GIFs of the people

But journalists are not the only ones who have been working GIFs into their routines. 

Last year saw the creation of apps like WeGIF and Motiongraph that put the tools of GIF-making in the hands of the masses. Many such apps are competing to become the GIFing equivalent of the wildly popular (if recently criticized) picture sharing platform Instagram.

One of the top contenders is Cinemagram, a small startup with roots in Montreal, which has attracted millions of active users since launching as a free app in March.

The number of people signing up each day is in the tens of thousands, says community manager Katie Sehl.

"We don’t think it’s just a flash in the pan," she said, adding that GIFing will increasingly become one of the ways people are communicating. Many users, she noted, have used the app to tell news stories from their point of view.

"The news aspect is something we had not anticipated initially, but are really excited about," Sehl said. "Every news story is huge for our users: Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 election, even Black Friday."

Devin Feldman, a 19-year-old U.S. college student who runs the popular Twitter account @GIF_Master, says the use of GIFs in news coverage could make stories more appealing to his generation.

"Honestly, I think about Harry Potter," he said, referencing newspapers shown in the boy wizard movies where the photographs move. The politician on the front page, he said, would seem more alive.

"You don’t just see some bad angle, but the reaction on their face."

Many sites that feature GIFs prominently, like blog hosting platform Tumblr, still focus on lighthearted fare and cheeky ways of expressing emotion. However, several now include newsworthy GIFs. The GIF Hound's Tumblr blog, for instance, is dedicated to capturing key moments from current events.

"The Obama campaign released video today of the president thanking his staff post-re-election victory," notes the curator in one entry. The GIF featured the moment U.S. President Barack Obama wiped a tear from his eye. "He got a little emotional."

GIFs as art form

A canvas is only as potentially poignant and powerful as the painter who gives it meaning. Still, when people look at creative GIFS many are still saying: "Yes, but is it art?"

See a few examples 

If GIFs of a serious nature become more commonplace, and if higher resolution GIFs become easier to make and share, the usage of the 25-year-old format could gain new life and become more widespread.

Sehl said pigeonholing the format as frivolous ignores its expressive potential. She has seen users create GIFs about issues from the headlines as well as the emotionally charged stories from their own lives.

"One user used Cinemagram to track his brother's progression in coming out of a coma," she said. "GIFs can be whatever you want them to be."