honoring steve wilhite: why the 35-year-old gif still delights

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The pronunciation of “.gif” isn’t up for debate — at least according to Steve Wilhite, the creator of the file format.

“It is a soft G, pronounced ‘jif,'” he told the New York Times in 2012. “End of story.”

Wilhite, who passed away last week, probably didn’t know how much animated GIFs would change the web.

But, 35 years after their introduction, GIFs remain embedded in our digital lives. Here’s why we love them … and why we owe Steve Wilhite our gratitude.

GIFs are pictures — but better

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a GIF must be worth, what? 10,000? 100,000?

I can describe a waving bear, or show you a picture of a bear with a raised paw. But there’s nothing like seeing two bears actually waving. GIFs make that possible.

The GIF, or graphics interchange format, came about at a time when internet speeds were painfully slow. Early ISP CompuServe, where Wilhite worked in the late ’80s, initially introduced the GIF as a means of compressing images for the web.

GIFs tell stories

Humans are storytellers — it’s in our genes. Telling stories helps us communicate what we know, deepening our social relationships in the process.

A big part of GIFs’ enduring popularity is their storytelling potential. In a loop of just a few seconds, a GIF can display an emotion or an event that a bunch of text — like what was common on the early internet — simply can’t.

At first, the GIF only supported static images, before being updated in June 1987 to allow for animations on a timer. That format is the GIF we know and love today.

GIFs are meme-able

Real ’90s kids know all about the dancing baby. It was a real-deal meme about a decade before memes reached the mainstream.

That’s how far ahead of their time GIFs were: They made it easy to not only create but share memes and other art forms.

In the ’90s, creators seized upon the GIF and made it their own. Olia Lialina, a Russian artist, began using GIFs in 1997 because at the time “it was the only way to get a moving image in the browser.”

Wilhite, for his part, said the dancing baby was one of his favorite GIFs.

GIFs enrich the context of a conversation

We at illumy love GIFs for their contextual potential. illumy is all about rich conversation, and our GIPHY integration makes your illumy chats even richer.

Very soon, illumy will support GIPHY Clips, i.e. GIFs with sound. (You can check them out today if you’re a TikTok user.)

The GIF was so transformative that the Oxford American Dictionaries recognized GIF as its word of the year in 2012. The next year, Wilhite received a lifetime achievement honor at the Webby Awards.

Unable to speak, having suffered a stroke some years before, Wilhite had a GIF displayed above the stage.

“IT’S PRONOUNCED “JIF,” the image read in all caps. “NOT GIF.”

Photo by Manuel Iallonardi on Unsplash.

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