how one man changed the grammar of social media - TrendyNewsReporters
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how one man changed the grammar of social media

If the internet was to get its own movie-style credits sequence, it would likely consist of billions of names all contributing (for better or worse) in their own little way. While you or I would likely be left waiting several days for our names to pop up, one person who would be able to leave this imaginary cinema in seconds would be Stephen Wilhite, who sadly died this month at the age of 74.

Wilhite was the father of the graphics interchange format, better known as the Gif: soundless, animated images that have become the grammar of social media, comment threads, and listicles across the web. If a picture is worth 1,000 words then the average response to a viral tweet must rival War and Peace for substance.

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That’s likely the secret of their success and why they’re now so deeply embedded in internet culture. In an environment where the acronym TL;DR (“too long; didn’t read”) has become necessarily widespread, Gifs offer an instant way to make ourselves seen.

More than seen: felt. A well-placed Gif can really transmit your guttural reaction to things in a way that’s often difficult to parse as text on a screen. This, after all, is a place where we still have to awkwardly type “/s” if we want people to know we’re being sarcastic.

In fact, given the internet has proved itself the ultimate battlefield for futile and usually pointless debate over everything from the Ukraine war to the colour of a stripey dress, it’s amazing how universally accepted the Gif has become.

The Gif’s usefulness as shorthand is about the only thing that we can agree about online, and while some will argue it’s the calling card of those lacking originality or a childish way of avoiding active engagement, those who labour the point are ultimately fighting a losing battle.

Even the pronunciation of the word is something that really should be up for persistent debate but just isn’t. Wilhite, for his part, always maintained that it should be pronounced “Jif”, and gently trolled this point at every opportunity to an internet that was broadly having none of it. Among those who were unconvinced was President Barack Obama, who told Tumblr founder David Karp that the word had to have a hard G. “That is my official position,” Obama said. “I pondered it a long time.”

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Speaking of former presidents, in 2017 the format truly peaked (or troughed, depending on your point of view) when Donald Trump communicated via Gif on his once beloved Twitter, marking a first for the office. Trump described his unorthodox use of Twitter as “modern day presidential”, which is hard to dispute, given you can’t really imagine Thomas Jefferson publishing a Gif of him repeatedly punching a man with CNN’s logo crudely pasted across the face.

But usually Gifs are nowhere near that combative, and have turned those whose iconic moments have been captured into minor celebrities. Big Brother contestant Elissa Slater doing a spit take feels more authentic than a “lol”, Drew Scanlon’s confused blinking is a note-perfect illustration of polite bafflement, and Kathryn Hahn’s elaborate stage wink in Wandavision has become a surprisingly sophisticated way of highlighting all manner of human failings.

Separated by screens and deprived of the social cues that are so vital for empathy, compassion and understanding to exist, it’s hard to imagine a worse environment for human relationships to flourish than the internet.

Gifs have softened that edge, giving us shared references and in-jokes to make a deeply impersonal medium that bit more personal. Which is just as well given how integral to our lives the internet has become –, especially thanks to the events of the last two years.

As one well wisher wrote on Wilhite’s obituary page: “You changed the way we converse as a society and immortalised countless moments that would otherwise be fleeting.” Amen.

So thank you, Stephen. Yours truly is the Gif that keeps on giving.

 

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