Imgur: The Biggest Little Site in the World

What does Imgur, one of the most highly-trafficked sites on the web, want to be when it grows up? Television.
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The whole thing started with a picture. An extremely tall fellow, Dan, peeked over a door—over a door—to watch TV. It was funny. Someone took a photo. Dan posted the photo to the image-sharing site Imgur. A lady named Briony saw the photo. She's tall, too, and she likes tall guys ("they make me feel petite"). So Briony sent a message to Dan. And they kept messaging each other. Fast-forward a bit, and ... they arranged to meet. They went to a rooftop bar. They hit it off. As Briony announced afterward

Dan and Briony may or may not make it as a couple, but they did get to enjoy a delightfully of-the-Internet meet-cute. And their date, when it finally took place, came courtesy not of OKCupid, not of Match, not of Facebook, not of TallPeopleLove.com ... but of an image-hosting site that is more commonly associated with juvenile memes ("WE KISSED") than with romantic schemes. This was a date born of Imgur. Dan, as an Imgurian, is better known as "altitudeguy." Briony is "brionyrae."

And their web-enabled meetup was spurred along not just by a goofy photo, but also by a transformation that has taken place within Imgur over the past year or so: The platform that initially became popular for its mechanical efficiency has been exploring efficiencies of a more social variety. Last month, the service released a new chat system that allows its growing community of users to send and receive messages in real time. More and more, it has been emphasizing its homepage as a destination for users. Imgur is shifting: from image host to user community to public destination. In that sense, it's following the opposite trajectory of a Facebook or a Twitter or a similar site—networks that are trying to become platforms. Imgur is a platform that is trying to become a social network. 

Oh, and for the record? It's pronounced "IM-uh-jur." 

***

IM-uh-jur was, like so many similar sites, born in a dorm room. It was 2009, and Alan Schaaf was a student at Ohio University in Athens, and Reddit was, at that point, primarily known as a link-sharing-and-discussion board. As that, it was immensely popular—well on its way to becoming "the front page of the Internet." But Schaaf, himself a Redditor, thought the site also had a problem. Actually, he thought, the whole Internet had a problem. "And that problem," he told me, "was that there was no place on the Internet to quickly upload and share images."

So he fixed it. Schaaf built Imgur, then posted his project to Reddit. (The announcement read, "My Gift to Reddit: I created an image hosting service that doesn't suck. What do you think?") As Schaaf—MrGrim on Reddit—explained:

I got fed up with all the other image hosts out there so I made my own. It doesn't force you to compress your images, and it has neat things like crop, resize, rotate, and compression from 10-100. It's my gift to you. Let's not see anymore imageshack/photobucket around here ;)

Images, Schaaf points out, are not necessarily the same thing as photos. "Whereas a photo is typically something that is taken from your camera," he says, "an image can be much more broad: an animated GIF, or a drawing, or something you whip up in Photoshop, or a logo, or a screenshot." That distinction matters not only for images as cultural objects, but also for images as media products: They require a different functionality, and a different infrastructure, from what still photos require. And when images are made social—when they come, say, with their own comments fields—sharing them requires that they be not just uploadable, but embeddable. There's a lot of metadata in there.

Schaaf built Imgur to benefit from the photo/image distinction: He wanted an image-sharing site that would be, like Reddit itself—and like, at its best, the Internet itself—fundamentally simple to use. He wanted to minimize the friction that often came with sharing photos via any site that was not named Facebook. "I actually tried to reduce the number of clicks it took before your final image was online," he says. "I think it was, like, two clicks."

Schaaf's hunch—and his hack—paid off. "When I launched it on Reddit," Schaaf recalls, "people just loved it."

***

You probably know, in one way or another, the story from there. Imgur was an almost instant hit, growing to become one of the most-linked sites on Reddit—which is also to say, one of the most-linked sites on the Internet. Today, if you see an image on and/or from Reddit (the space dog, the rocketfrog, a high percentage of the GIFs and memes on Buzzfeed), there is a high likelihood that said image is hosted on Imgur. (And if you, like I do, spend daily time on Reddit and its environs, there's a good chance that several of your open browser tabs will feature Imgur's distinctive green-circle-in-a-black-square favicon.) "There's no formal relationship with Reddit," Schaaf says. "We just know the guys over there … but the relationship is more with the community than with Reddit itself." 

In a very real sense, though, Reddit and Imgur—two of the handful of sites that drive the daily doings of the Internet—co-evolved with each other. Imgur, with its focus on memery and remixery and Photoshop and its allowances for easy comment-making, became one of the infrastructural backbones of Reddit—the platform through which users share some of the site's most viral content. Imgur offered up, through its assortment of images, the odd and the off-color. And the quirky and the sweet. And the vaguely porny. And the full-on sexist. And the weirdly faith-restoring. And the amusing. It hosted Seinfeldian observations. And glorified PSAs. And sriracha peppers.

Imgur, essentially, brought a new kind of sociability to the stock photo phenomenon: Its viral images, in the aggregate, helped to illustrate an otherwise text-heavy Internet. By 2011, TechCruch was naming it the "Best Bootstrapped Startup" of the year. By 2012, Imgur was being visited by 30 million unique viewers a month—and those visitors were generating more than 1 billion pageviews. In a period of five months later that year, it doubled those pageviews to 2 billion.

And then something crazy happened: The gift for Reddit began to outpace Reddit itself. For the past year, Imgur's traffic has surpassed Reddit's. Significantly. "The community is huge now," Schaaf says. Which is both accurate and an understatement: In late September, Imgur marked a significant milestone, passing 100 million unique users for the month. (For comparison, The New York Times has around 31 million monthly uniques. Reddit itself has around 85 million. Buzzfeed, that other image-happy viral juggernaut, just passed 130 million.) About a third of those 100 million Imgur visitors are, tellingly, coming to the site directly—a close second to the referrals Imgur gets from Reddit. 

That kind of growth comes in large part from the fact that Imgur isn't, its origins aside, simply a non-sucky image-hosting service; it's also a community that is a self-fashioned and self-conscious virality engine. Members can, in the same way that Redditors can, upvote and down-vote image submissions—and, Schaaf says, "the average amount of points that an image gets is between 6,000 and 10,000." (In other words, "you're talking about 10,000 people voting on each of these images.") Members can also comment, and comment on other comments, and comment on the comments' comments, and on and on. Just as on Reddit proper, the comments become part of the content itself, appending it and amending it and otherwise spurring its virality.

The image-vs.-photo distinction, in that sense, becomes a social phenomenon as well as a categorial difference: An image on Imgur is a picture that is not only worth 1,000 words; it is also, often, accompanied by them.

Which is another way of saying that Imgur specializes in images that are not just ornamental, and not just documentary, but conversational. This is one of the crucial ways that Imgur differs from, say, Facebook, which remains the single largest photo-sharing service in the world. Imgur's images are, by and large, public, not personal. They skew more to the artistic than to the archival. If they were characters in Alice's Wonderland, their message wouldn't be "Look at Me." It would be "Talk About Me."

***

Witnessing Imgur's growth from within, Schaaf and his expanding team began updating the site in a way that would maximize its potential not just as a platform, but as a destination. In 2012, they updated the site to allow users to upload images directly into the Imgur Gallery—creating, effectively, a collection of the most popular and viral images on the site. The gallery fuses data both internal (views and votes within Imgur itself) and external (Facebook likes, retweets, votes on Reddit) to come up with what Imgur calls a "virality score." It then presents images according to the score's rankings, allowing users to narrow their selections (according most-viral and highest-scoring and user-submitted and meme-only—and, from there, according to either popularity or recency).

"It's super-dynamic, so it's changing multiple times a day," Schaaf says. Which means that, for users, "there's a reason to keep coming back." Imgur, like many sites, seems to owe the rhythms of its traffic patterns to the rhythms of the office workday. The site's peak traffic tends to come at 2pm Pacific time, Matt Strader, Imgur's COO, told me—the closing of the work day on the East Coast, and the tail-end of lunch breaks on the West. (Monday is usually the biggest day for Imgur traffic, likely the result of people settling back into the work week, and weekends are the lowest.) Imgur's servers, hosted on Amazon's Web Services, adjust their capacity accordingly. 

With its 100 million monthly visitors, in other words, Imgur has pretty much made the move from host to destination; the next step for Schaaf and his team of 10, now based in San Francisco, is to figure out what kind of destination, exactly, it will be. And how it will be such a destination while also making money. The way it's currently financing itself? Ads, mostly, along with subscriptions to its pro accounts. (Imgur also does enterprise hosting—for clients including, as of this February, the Flickr-owner Yahoo.) There are also, unsurprisingly, many, many acquisition rumors: “People are literally—literally—sliding term sheets under their door,” one source told All Things D's Liz Gannes in October.

For the past year and a half, though, Imgur has also been experimenting with another way to make money: sponsored images—promoted content that lives on the site just like the organic stuff. "It's structured just like the other posts that users make, organically," Strader says. "We're just allowing brands to buy their way to the top." Under normal circumstances, the odds of making it to the front page of Imgur—just like the odds of making it to the front page of Reddit—are tiny. Sponsored images let brands essentially buy their way there. And "users can treat the ads just like any other content," Strader says. "They can vote on it, they can share it." 

The point of this isn't just that sponsored content—ads that reach a slice of those 200 million eyeballs—can be lucrative. It's also, Schaaf and Strader insist, that they make for a better user experience than mere display ads. "Imgur is very user-experience-focused," Strader says. "There's only one advertisement on the site right now, and it's always been like that." The company could, he points out, put up another ad, increasing revenue from the stream. "But that's not going to be a good experience, so we're not going to do that."

What is a good experience, though, the company believes, is going to Imgur.com and being greeted with an assortment of images that have been hand-picked to go viral by a collection of far-flung curators. Which is sort of like TV, in its way, as an experience. Schaaf points out that, for many people, relaxing at night after a long day of work involves sitting on the couch and browsing through TV channels. "They aren't necessarily looking for something specific to watch; they just want to unwind from their day and be entertained." Appointment TV, and the remote routine that came with it, may be declining; Schaaf, however, thinks that Imgur can step in where TV is leaving off to provide diversion that is mindless in the best way possible. "That same sort of sit-back-and-relax-and-be-entertained feeling is what we're going for," Schaaf says.

As Strader puts it: "The overall plan is to become a household name for viral images." Imgur wants to be, essentially, TV—minus the actual TV. The company wants to take its growing-by-the-day collection of images and turn them into entertainment, into a new and very web-driven form of "appointment viewing." It wants to take all those puppies and pizzas and people and memes—the images that help give form to the Internet—and gather them in one place: your screen.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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