The enormous impact of Stephen Wilhite, inventor of the GIF

The man behind the looping graphics synonymous with internet culture passed away this week.

Today, the looping clips known as GIFs are a cornerstone of internet expression. Their use is both an art form and everyday practice for many.

But long before the fiery debate over their pronunciation made it to the Oval Office (yes, that happened), the Graphics Interchange Format was simply a technological solution developed by Stephen Wilhite.

The GIF backstory

In the 1980s, Wilhite was the lead engineer on a team at CompuServe tasked with finding a way to quickly distribute “high-quality, high-resolution graphics” in color.

Developing this became an obsession for Wilhite, who would perfect the product at home.

The result, GIF, was released in 1987, but its commercial success is due in large part to Netscape, which, in 1995 added the ability for GIFs to loop.

GIF vs. JIF

With the rise of GIFs came a historic internet debate: whether it’s pronounced “gif” (with a hard G, like “gift”) or “jif.” In 2012, Oxford American Dictionaries named “GIF” its US Word of the Year, accepting both pronunciations.

In 2013, Wilhite flat-out told The New York Times, “It’s a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.” Then, at an award ceremony soon after, he displayed a GIF proclaiming the “jif” pronunciation correct to the iconic backdrop of Also sprach Zarathustra.

It was a baller move, but despite his clarification, the debate seemingly continues to this day.

The impact of GIFs

The most ubiquitous platform for GIFs today is Giphy, used by 700m+ people and said to come 2nd only to Google in search engine activity.

According to Giphy, the 1st GIF ever uploaded to the internet, by Wilhite himself, was of a plane over rolling clouds.

Sadly, Wilhite passed away last week at the age of 74. Messages from former colleagues on an obituary page refer to his positive soul and other tech contributions.

Soon after his passing, Giphy’s website posted a tribute to Wilhite. The message, “Stephen Wilhite Creator of the GIF 1948-2022,” was displayed on top of an animated loop of rolling clouds — a GIF.

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