When the late Stephen Wilhite, American computer scientist and early contributor to the web, invented the .gif file format in 1987, he had no idea that his animated images would spark a revolution.
Anyone who lived through the nineties remembers the weird websites with sparkling gifs and animated objects that made the web so fascinating back then. Even today, gifs live on, whether on sites like Giphy or in the form of NFT artwork sometimes worth millions and millions of dollars.
But a lot has changed since gifs were invented. These days, everyone has a fast connection to the Internet and surfs the web from a device that can play sound.
Have gifs caught on?
Can GIFs Have Sound?
No, gifs can’t have sound.
The typical .gif file has several still images that your computer, tablet, or phone displays one after the other in time windows called “frames.” The frames make up the animation. However, the gif file format doesn’t support audio, so gifs cannot have sound.
If you’re creating an animation or editing a video—and you want your final product to contain sound—you will need to choose a different file format that supports it. Since you were wondering about gifs, you probably want to publish your animation or video on the web.
In other words, it’s best to choose a web-friendly video file format.
Which Web-Friendly Video File Format Should You Use?
There’s more than one video file format that can be published on the web, but the two most widely used by far are .mp4 and .webp.
The .mp4 file format contains high-quality video and audio and is supported by all web browsers. It’s even the file format that YouTube encourages its creators to upload their videos in!
The .webm file format, developed in 2010 by a team of Google engineers, allows your videos for the web to be kept very small without compromising on quality. However, it is not played by all media players and web browsers.
For example, the Safari browser on iPhones and iPads won’t play webm movies. Considering the number of users who surf the Internet with an Apple device, this is a compromise that few content creators are willing to make (so they export their videos as mp4s).
Why Can’t GIFs Have Sound?
It comes down to how they’re made, really.
The best way to think of the gif file format is as the digital counterpart to silent film.
Just as silent films were created in the early days of the movie industry—and they could contain moving pictures but no sound—gifs were created in the early days of the Internet and they could have animations but no audio.
Things changed and, over time, richer, smaller, and frankly better file formats emerged, including those that we just talked about in the section above this one.
These file formats made it possible to combine video and audio streams into a single file and make that file streamable through the Internet.
And yet gifs, with all their weirdness, stayed—and they’re here to stay.
The Exception: Audio GIFs on Giphy
The world’s largest database and search engine for gifs, Giphy, bent the rules of the game when it introduced “audio gifs” to its platform in 2019 (Input Magazine).
As the name suggests, audio gifs are sound-enriched gif images that can only be played on Giphy’s platform. Don’t let the name fool you, though: Under the hood, the website combines the gif with the audio file to create a video file with sound that plays in the user’s browser.