If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a gif is worth millions. The image file format has been a defining element of internet culture for decades, with glass-raising DiCaprios and mic-dropping Obamas facilitating self-expression in a faceless digital world. And we have one man to thank for all the jokes, snark and praise: Stephen Wilhite, inventor of the gif, who died last week, aged 74.
Wilhite, who lived in Milford, Ohio, contracted Covid two weeks before his death, his wife, Kathaleen Wilhite, told NPR.
A lifelong coder, Stephen Wilhite created the gif in 1987 while working at CompuServe. The compressed image files were useful at a time when internet connections dragged. “If you want lossless, compressed graphics, there is nothing better than gif,” said Sandy Trevor, who managed Wilhite’s team, to the Daily Dot in 2012.
Wilhite “invented gif all by himself – he actually did that at home and brought it into work after he perfected it”, said Kathaleen Wilhite to the Verge. “He would figure out everything privately in his head and then go to town programming it on the computer.” It was his proudest achievement, she said.
The same year, an update led to animated graphics. “I think the first gif was a picture of a plane. It was a long time ago,” Stephen Wilhite told the Daily Dot in 2012. Indeed, according to Giphy, the go-to site for gif seekers, it was this image:
Wilhite worked for Compuserve until 2001, after he had a stroke. Meanwhile, gifs’ popularity took off, including on early social media sites such as MySpace. By 1996, the “dancing baby” image – one of Wilhite’s favorites, he told the New York Times – was plastered across the web and attached to emails. In 2012, “gif” was dubbed word of the year by Oxford American Dictionaries. The next year, the New York Times called the format “the aesthetic calling card of modern Internet culture”.
That year, Wilhite received a Webby lifetime achievement award. Called to the stage, he maintained a poker face as he delivered an acceptance “speech” in an appropriate format:
Wilhite continued to code for the rest of his life. He was also passionate about model trains, Kathaleen Wilhite told NPR, and the couple were avid campers; he “loved traveling”, his obituary says. Beyond his work and his hobbies, “he was probably one of the kindest, humble men you’ve ever met,” Kathaleen Wilhite told the radio network. “People loved him and respected his work, and that would mean more to him than anything is how they respected what he did … I miss him more than anyone could imagine.”
Tributes poured in on his obituary page. “You changed the way we converse as a society, and immortalized countless moments that would otherwise be fleeting,” wrote one well-wisher. “Thank you for helping the modern world take shape,” wrote another.
Giphy offered a tribute of its own, hailing “the simplicity of the format, the power of the looping image. We are indebted to the creativity and vision of Mr Wilhite.”
For those who’d like to honor Wilhite’s memory themselves, there are plenty of gifs that pay tribute to their inventor. Perhaps even better, you can heed his unequivocal advice: pronounce it “jif”.