Internet pays tribute to Stephen Wilhite, inventor of the GIF

24 Mar 2022

Image: © vector_v/Stock.adobe.com

Wilhite, who famously said the word is pronounced ‘jif’, died last week after developing complications relating to Covid-19.

Social media sites are buzzing with GIFs and tributes to Stephen Wilhite, the inventor of the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) in the late 1980s, following his death on 14 March.

According to multiple media reports, 74-year-old Wilhite died of Covid-19 complications two weeks after contracting the virus.

Future Human

Now an internet sensation, the GIF was first developed by a team of computer scientists at CompuServe, one of the world’s first online service providers and the oldest of three major commercial ones in the US at the time with Prodigy and America Online.

The team was led by Wilhite, who first conceived of the idea as a way to distribute high-quality graphics in colour through the limited internet speeds available at the time.

“He invented GIF all by himself – he actually did that at home and brought it into work after he perfected it,” his wife Kathleen Wilhite told The Verge. “He would figure out everything privately in his head and then go to town programming it on the computer.”

According to Giphy, the first ever GIF uploaded to the internet was in 1987 when Wilhite uploaded a black-and-white image of a plane flying in the sky.

Today, the GIF is ubiquitous in internet culture, used widely as a means to share memes and in response to messages. While it has been around for more than three decades, the GIF exploded in popular internet culture starting in the 2010s.

‘It’s pronounced jif’

At the time he retired, Wilhite was chief architect at America Online. In May 2013, he won the Webby Lifetime Achievement Award in New York, where he famously settled the debate on how to pronounce the word GIF. While he received his award, text on a screen behind him read “It’s pronounced ‘jif’”.

Later that month, he told The New York Times that even though he is proud of inventing the GIF, the fact that people were still debating the pronunciation annoyed him. “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Wilhite said. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G’, pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

Wilhite also said at the time that he had never made an animated GIF himself, but the classic ‘dancing baby’ from 1996 was his favourite.

Podcaster Andy Ley tweeted a screenshot of the news of Wilhite’s death and joked “I guess he’s with jod now”.

According to his obituary, Wilhite was an avid camper and enjoyed travelling, and “even with all his accomplishments, he remained a very humble, kind, and good man”.

Giphy, one of the world’s most popular sources of GIFs, also paid tribute to him with a special GIF. It added that the company “was built on a sincere love for the GIF – and we are indebted to the creativity and vision of Mr Wilhite”.

“Thank you so much for creating something that has been, and will long continue to be, enjoyed by millions of people around the world,” Giphy wrote in a statement.

Tumblr, which played a role in popularising GIFs in the early 2010s, also paid tribute to Wilhite. “Tumblr – and the rest of the internet – wouldn’t be the same without GIFs,” the platform tweeted.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com