The History of GIF News (1988 – 1993)

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Courtesy of Waxy’s illustrious Andy Baio, a wonderfully written history of the halcyon years of GIF News, a distributed online newsletter distributed via BBSes (the Internet’s underground, trilobitic evolutionary precursor) dating back to 1988. Luridly pixelated Flickr gallery and all!

As for the content of this newsletter itself, it’s important to note that the content was not about the GIF format itself (the Graphics Interchange Format is described in excruciating detail here), but simply used the GIF format to provide something that in 1988 was pretty unique for a person working out of upstate New York: a full-color, easily transmittable, completely static presentation of computer news. Because he had the 256 color palette to work from, Hsiao could intersperse color screen shots, artwork, and all range of unusual fonts. While not preceding the era of vector-based formats like Postscript, GIF News could produce a relatively low-size file (almost none exceed 100k in size) that could then be archived with other pages and transferred throughout the world…

Beyond the transport mechanism, of course, is the content being discussed. The GIF News would only arrive every 60 days or so, and each issue would be at most four pages/images, so the ability to devour the content in a world with RSS feeds and news shooting at us by the bucketful blows through a given posting in no time. It would be unfair, again, to sit here in 2008 and compare what tools rest in our hands for generating an image-and-text newsletter and berate or sneer at Eric’s seemingly glacial release pace; every one of these pages could have been hours of painful adjustments and drawing, writing the articles and then carefully placing pixels or groupings around captured artwork.

My heart always suffers from a pang, a fond ache, when I read-up on the incredibly creative BBS scenes of the late 80s… a scene I largely missed in lieu of downloading shareware games from Software Creations and playing pornographic door games. There were these clusters of incredible creativity and ingenuity hidden inside a sprawlingly disjointed, 1200 baud spaghetti structure of isolated communities tied together (at best) by the tin-can transmission system of FidoNet. I was never a part of these, but these secret conclaves of phreakers, programmers, artists and writers were the first cowboys of cyberspace. I wish I’d spent my youth getting to know them.

History of GIF News [Textfiles via Waxy]

GIF News Gallery [Flickr]

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6 Responses to The History of GIF News (1988 – 1993)

  1. Athryn says:

    Man, that brings back memories. Running a 2 line BBS out of my dorm room in college was one of the funnest things ever. Good times!

  2. dculberson says:

    Man, our BBS get-togethers were never that crazy! Plenty of booze, of course, but … oh wait. Never mind, they were that crazy.

  3. Carlos says:

    I’m with you, John — I too could have been a part of the the 80s cyber-scene, but made some of the same decisions you did. At least in regards to the games: What precisely are door pr0n games? Or don’t I want to know?

    But anyway dude, pining over lost youth is misguided. I feel a poem coming on. Ahem:

    Tho’ relentlessly forward history wends
    we should not long to make amends

    for phreaks unphreak’d and songs unsung:
    if you’re wasting youth, then you know you’re young.

    Though you missed Gif News (I agree ’tis sad)
    just think of all of the fun you had

    as you Duke Nukem’d, Doom’d, Hexen’d, Apogee’d:
    they’d helped You become You; you were John Brownlee’d.

    And thanks to the Internet, we now know the past
    is just one click away, stashed in Google’s great cache

    so whatever, like rosebuds ungathered, we lost
    is a search term away, waiting there at no cost

    for us to discover. So, John, don’t be forlorn.
    It’s all there for the taking. Even your old door porn.

  4. LogrusZed says:

    From one-line Citadel systems to “huge” 64-line systems I absolutely loved my local BBS scene here in Portland. The best thing about the BBS scene was that we had regular parties, genuine social activity that usually involved copious amounts of alcohol and drugs and sex!

    Heartbeats of Portland, Rose City Online; I miss you!

  5. zuzu says:

    I was never a part of these, but these secret conclaves of phreakers, programmers, artists and writers were the first cowboys of cyberspace. I wish I’d spent my youth getting to know them.

    Mostly we just wasted time playing TradeWars.

  6. Marshall says:

    That Colonel’s Bequest screenshot gives me pangs of memory…

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