Of all the world’s file formats, GIF (or Graphics Interchange Format) is probably the one that resonates most with web users and last night, its creator Steve Wilhite was honoured with a lifetime achievement at the Webby Awards.
The Webby Awards, presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, have been around for some 17 years now. In the world of online that’s a seriously long time. Over the years they’ve recognised some of the most innovative players in tech and given that GIFs now span every aspect of online life from quick-fire memes to complex art, recognizing the format’s creator only makes sense.
Back in the early days of the web though, it was far from clear that GIFs would have the impact they have. When the format debuted back in 1987 getting any kind of image online was a challenge. The New York Times’ Bits Blog cites an article from an edition of the magazine “Online Today” from that year describing the problem:
Horror stories about incompatible microcomputers may be humorous when everyone is in a good mood, but they are certainly the nemesis of any serious computer user. The frustration is no laughing matter when a person wants to transfer some data or a graphics image, and the system doesn’t cooperate.
Back then, Wilihite was working at CompuServe and thought he could help the company display things like animated weather maps. When people saw his first ever GIF of an animated paper plane, he says, they abandoned the black and white projects they were working on and started working with the format.
It quickly became a mainstay of the web before falling out of fashion for a while. In the past few years it has made a serious comeback, largely on the back of how easily it can be used to spread memes.
“It’s been an incredibly enduring piece of technology,” said David-Michel Davies, the executive director of The Webby Awards. “Even as bandwidth has expanded,” he said, “it has been very exciting to see how much cultural cachet the format has gotten.”
Fittingly Wilihite used a GIF for his Webby acceptance speech. “It’s pronounced JIF, not GIF,” flashed up on a giant screen. It’s within the five-word acceptance speech limit of the awards and clears up a hell of a lot confusion too.