The death was confirmed in an obituary, which said Wilhite, one the chief architect of America Online, died March 14, just days after his 74th birthday on March 3. He died of Covid, his wife, Kathaleen, confirmed.
In 1987, he created the Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF, to compress images to make them 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 on Tumblr and other sites. Many over the years debated how GIF is supposed to be pronounced. 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 they use the word (guilty!)
In 2013, Wilhite received Lifetime Achievement Award at the Webby Awards for his invention and his contribution to internet culture. Kathaleen Wilhite said it was a “wonderful moment in his life going to New York and winning that award.” However, she said, “they should have honored him a lot sooner.”
He retired in the early 2000s and spent time camping and traveling.