Stephen Wilhite, the creator of the looping animated image format, the GIF, died earlier this month.
Wilhite’s death was confirmed in an obituary, which stated the former chief architect of America Online died on March 14 — just days after his 74th birthday on March 3. He died of Covid, Wilhite’s wife, Kathaleen, confirmed.
Wilhite began his career at Compuserve, the first major commercial online service provider.
In 1987, while at Compuserve, he created the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) in order to compress images to make then accessible for early modem speeds.
Years later, it became social media’s primary method of conveying emotion and memetic communication. The GIF format has been used as a convenient way to show graphs, drawings, and simple animations.
In the early 2010s, the format exploded. Whether it was Jasmine Masters from RuPaul’s Drag Race saying “And I oop-“ or Kermit the Frog drinking Lipton tea, there was no shortage of expression that could be conveyed by Wilhite’s gif.
In 2012, GIF was pronounced word of the year by the Oxford American Dictionary, thanks to its resurgence in popularity among bloggers, especially those on Tumblr and other sites.
Many over the years debated the origins of how GIF is supposed to be pronounced. But in 2013, Wilhite settled the debate, declaring that it is pronounced with a soft “G,” like the peanut butter brand “JIF.” Some still use a hard “G” when describing the term.
In 2013, Wilhite went on to received Lifetime Achievement Award at the 17th annual Webby Awards for his invention and contribution to internet culture.
Kathaleen said it was a “wonderful moment in his life going to New York and winning that award.”Though, she said, “they should have honored him a lot sooner.”
He retired in the early 2000s and spent time camping and traveling.
Wilhite is survived by his wife, four stepchildren, a son, 11 grandchildren and three great grandchildren, according to his obituary.
A funeral service for Wilhite was held in Milford, Ohio, on Tuesday.
Kalhan Rosenblatt is a reporter covering youth and internet culture for NBC News, based in New York.