By now we know that the Internet has its own culture, with sometimes-confusing norms, ethics, modes of communication, and a language peppered with acronyms, hashtags, gifs, and memes. What’s less well-known is that giant chunk of that language—the gifs and memes—are powered by one company.
Imgur (pronounced like “imager”), a San Francisco photo hosting startup, announced in April that it had surpassed 130 million monthly unique visitors. (For context, that makes it about the same size as BuzzFeed in terms of audience.) How Imgur got there is more remarkable than the fact that it got there. Until its April announcement—which included news of a $40 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz and Reddit—Imgur had bootstrapped itself for almost five years. Founder Alan Schaaf started the company in 2009 while attending Ohio University, paying $7 for the Imgur.com domain. Today, he and six engineers support an iOS app, Android app, API, enterprise API, mobile website, and desktop website. Imgur’s users add 1.5 million new photos to its network every day. The company derives its income from display advertising.
Imgur’s initial goal was to host any image with wider appeal than a personal photo. That includes the stuff of webspeak: animated gifs, images with words on them, logos, graphics. The site was first popular with the Reddit community but quickly expanded beyond that to bodybuilding forums, gaming sites, and Facebook pages. Imgur now powers much of the visual web. “We were the de facto image host of Reddit,” Schaaf says. “Now we’re the de facto image host for the Internet.”
Because the Imgur site hosts so many photos, its team has developed a pretty good sense of what is likely to go viral, and by extension, what people like to see online. For this reason, Imgur is moving to expand beyond its role as a hidden utility—“like electricity,” Schaaf says—to become a consumer-facing media property. This is why it sought to raise its first-ever outside capital in April, valuing the company at $200 million, according to the Los Angeles Times.
With additional funds, Imgur has breathing room to chase its ambitious goal of becoming a household name. When the company was bootstrapped, it wasn’t able to develop new features—it could only release a new feature and move on, Schaaf says. (Even with the venture funding, he continues to run the company at a profit.) The funding simply allows Imgur to move faster than it previously could have.
Schaaf has hinted that Imgur will soon release new features that make its vast troves of images easier to navigate and consume, such as tags, categories, and other indicators of “virality.” The additions make Imgur more of a destination rather than only a place to store images. Today, 30% of the site’s current traffic is direct, meaning a user deliberately typed Imgur.com into his or her browser.
Like any Internet community, the site has a unique identity. Its most passionate users have dubbed themselves “Imgurians” and given themselves a logo, a giraffe with a green top hat called the “Imguraffe.” The community works to enforce an overall culture of positivity and supportiveness on the site. (Imgur’s comment sections allow users to up-vote good comments, similar to Reddit; negative contributions are hidden behind a “show bad comments” link.) Imgurians frequently plan real-life meetups; one couple that met on the site has since been married.
The vibrancy of the Imgurians underscore the inflection point at which Imgur has arrived: for the site to become mainstream, it may have to shed some of the quirkiness that makes it unique and risk losing the charm of its namesake community. (As with many online communities, a minority of users creates the vast majority of the content.)
Imgur’s content already reveals that the site has already begun to distance itself from its web culture-centric roots: the top images on Imgur are usually no longer gifs or memes, but related to personal stories, historic world events, and current news. At its heart, Imgur is about images that elicit emotional reactions, Schaaf says: “People have learned you can say more with an expression on an image.”