What would the internet be without GIFs? I really don’t even want to answer that question considering what a mark the file format has had on nearly all aspects of our current online discourse, in social media especially. So it is with sadness that Deadline reported today that the creator of the GIF format, Steve Wilhite, has passed away. According to the reporting, which originally came out from NPR, Wilhite died on March 14th from complications with Covid-19. In terms of internet impact, it’s easy to say that Wilhite’s contributions had and will continue to have a lasting impact on the space.
Steve Wilhite was the lead computer scientist for CompuServe who is credited with leading the team that eventually created the GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) back in 1987 (yes, computers worked back then). It became the predominant picture file format at the time and helped bring color to computer files back when things were particularly monochrome in that area. Among other things, the lower resolution and smaller size made it crucial for delivering images at a time when internet speeds were slow (and I mean slow).
Where the GIF has really had staying power in the world of the internet and silly messaging is in the video compression piece that allows for lower-resolution video clips to be shared with relative ease. Over the years, it’s this use of the file that has been able to enter the collective consciousness, appropriating the term to now mean those quick video clips used on every social media platform as well as peer-to-peer messaging apps. These files and images have taken the place of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and much more. GIFs are as pervasive a form of communication as words themselves it would seem, a lasting testament to what Wilhite created.
And for those who have debated about how to pronounce GIF when using it in the everyday vernacular, Wilhite was able to clear that piece up when he said that it was said with a “soft G, pronounced jif.” So if someone throws the hard ‘G’ at you, feel free to instantly correct them with the reminder that the dude who invented it wanted it said like the peanut butter brand. End of story.
For those keeping track, the most popular GIFs last year according to GIPHY (an app that handles these things with ease) were ones like “Bored Stanley” from The Office, “Tired Tom” from Tom & Jerry, “Oh No” from The Great British Bake Off and “Sad Pikachu” from Pokemon. Again, Wilhite created a file format that allowed folks to communicate these feelings and emotions through images that continue to resonate. Though it might seem silly, it’s hard to overstate the cultural impact of this format.
And don’t worry, Steve Wilhite had a long career in the tech industry and was even honored with a lifetime Webby Award back in 2013 for his contributions to the space. He is survived by his wife Kathleen and many children. He will be missed though it’s some solace to know that his contributions to the internet will live on forever. That’s a claim not many can make.