If I said “Imgur” to you, what would you think of? The front page? Cat photos galore? A blank stare? What should cross your mind is “Imgur (pronounced IM-uh-jur) was founded by Ohio State computer science student Alan Schaaf in 2009 as an image-hosting service meant to complement Reddit but has since evolved into an online image-sharing community with over 160 million active users and images garnering over 60 billion monthly views.” With a unique online persona, Imgur has quietly ascended the ranks of internet popularity, currently holding an Alexa rank of 44. Unsurprisingly, Imgur has also attracted the interest of investors looking to cash in on its user base. As someone who wastes an inordinate amount of time browsing Imgur, I’m interested to see how Imgur will preserve the character of its community while also catering to monetization efforts.
In a word, Imgur’s culture is best described as “quirky.” Imgur is very much a community-oriented site, centered around the sharing of funny, informative, or just plain weird images. Posted images are evaluated based on a system of upvotes and downvotes, with the highest scoring posts displayed on “FP,” or the “Front Page,” on Imgur’s homepage. Users, called “Imgurians,” can also receive votes on their comments on posts. Votes serve to assign users levels of “Notoriety” or online reputation, ranging from the unenviable “Forever Alone” to the vaunted “Glorious.”
Imgur’s community has enjoyed minimal involvement from Imgur’s administration and has developed a policy of self-policing; offensive or unsavory material is often downvoted or deleted and there exists a strong, unspoken obligation to keep the community clean. GIFs and memes are the language of choice, and a number of inside jokes exist within the community. Users can attain near-celebrity status through their posts, their usernames easily recognized. Moreover, Imgur has served to connect users across the world; a Google search for “Imgur love story” will yield a host of results chronicling users who have found romance through the site.
Naturally, Imgur’s success as a community has not gone unnoticed by keen-eyed venture capitalists. Andreesen Horowitz poured $40 million into the site in April 2014, five years after Imgur was founded. With the presence of investors, revenue-generating moves are clearly in Imgur’s future. While Imgur does offer premium accounts with unlimited posting plans and also runs a small online merchandise store, the site has become more aggressive in pursuing additional revenue streams, namely advertising. Companies are now able to purchase the right to post promoted material, with their posts appearing on the front page for all to see. Recently, companies such as eBay and Old Spice have been particularly active with Imgur ad campaigns, making their products a regular sight on the front page.
While it may seem that a spot on the front page allows for instant reach to Imgur’s massive user base, Imgur’s unique culture complicates the process. Imgurians can be extremely opinionated regarding advertising on the site, almost protective in a sense. Advertising is viewed as an intrusion; the front page is a showcase of the most popular images of the day, not a space that can be bought. Advertisements that make no effort to understand Imgur’s community are heavily downvoted and can even have an adverse effect on a company’s reputation. Truly successful advertisers have a pulse on Imgur’s current events and construct their posts accordingly, with their effort rewarded by Imgurians who are pleased to see such understanding.
Advertising on Imgur, while still in its infancy, is poised to become a huge part of the site. As of now, ads are few and far between, with only one promoted post shown on the front page each day. If Imgur is to make ad revenue a major part of their business model, it will need to find a way to deliver ads on a large scale without disturbing the core values that have been established within the community. It would be a shame for users to leave the site because their browsing experienced is threatened by ads. The situation is a delicate one, but if Imgur plays its cards right, it would have access to an unprecedented concentration of ad revenue from loyal users.