GIF Inventor Dies From Covid-19 Complications, Twitter Responds With a Torrent of GIF Tributes

A brief history of the GIF's evolution and how it's pronounced, according to the creator himself.

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By Amanda Breen

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GIF creator Steve Wilhite has died at the age of 74 after contracting Covid-19, NPR reports. According to his wife Kathaleen Wilhite, her husband contracted the virus on March 1 and was later hospitalized, passing away on March 14.

Wilhite's wife told NPR her husband had a lifelong passion for tinkering with his creations and computer programming, which continued in the weeks leading up to his diagnosis. It was 1987 when Wilhite developed the "Graphics Interchange Format" (GIF) while working at CompuServe. In a rare interview via Facebook in 2012, he told the Daily Dot, "I think the first GIF was a picture of a plane. It was a long time ago."

The GIF was revolutionary at its time, when internet speeds were much slower than they are today. The technology's compressed format enabled the more efficient transfer of images, and an animation feature was added to an updated version. When AOL purchased CompuServe in 1998 and let the GIF's patent expire, GIFs proliferated in every corner of the internet — on MySpace pages in the 2000s and Tumblr sites in the 2010s — becoming ubiquitous enough that its very pronunciation was up for hot debate, though Wilhite himself confirmed that it's pronounced "JIF" with a soft "G."

Wilhite received a lifetime achievement award from the Webby Awards in 2013, and today, GIFs continue to play a significant role in digital culture.

Related: How Do You Pronounce GIF? It Depends on Where You Live.

Jason Reed, the art director at the Daily Dot, told NPR via the Signal messaging service, "Without the .gif, the internet as we know it would be a different place. It's a tight medium that you can learn alot about storytelling within, especially tuned for the attention span of the internet."

In response to Wilhite's passing, Twitter users flooded the platform with GIF tributes to the man who started it all.

Users honored Wilhite with massive GIF compilations.

Others stressed the accurate pronunciation of "GIF," quoting Wilhite's Webby's acceptance speech.

Though others continued to stir the pot.

Some users got particularly creative with artisitic renditions of the beloved programmer.

While others put together dazzling montages.

Some admitted that it took Wilhite's passing to put a name to the inventor behind the technology that had changed so many lives.

And still others called for users to post their favorite GIFs in honor of the creator.

Amanda Breen

Entrepreneur Staff

Features Writer

Amanda Breen is a features writer at Entrepreneur.com. She is a graduate of Barnard College and recently completed the MFA in writing at Columbia University, where she was a news fellow for the School of the Arts during the 2020-2021 academic year. 

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