Imgur Is the Last True Internet Culture Remaining — But Can It Survive?

Imgur Is the Last True Internet Culture Remaining — But Can It Survive?

There is no more popular online destination for the modern male than Imgur. By the numbers, this humble photo-sharing site is in firm command of the millennial dude, blowing BuzzFeed, Reddit and even Tumblr out of the water with over 150 million monthly visitors and the highest concentration of millennial males in the U.S.

But you wouldn't know it unless you've stared Imgur right in its eyes. Or unless you're part of the club.

What is Imgur? If you ask its die-hard users, you'll get a lot of different answers. It's where the nicest people on the Internet upvote and curate a daily hub of the most viral, hilarious and inspiring memes and photos. Imgur is the pinnacle of real Internet culture, the last bastion of cohesive online community. Imgur is the greatest online experiment in mass media in an age when the Internet is getting smaller and smaller. 

And Imgur is growing up. After a steady six-year climb, Imgur is now beginning its second act on the heels of a $40 million investment, and it's found itself in a chrysalis between image-hosting forum and budding media empire.

Imgur is betting that it can mature into a full-fledged social network and take its place among the Facebooks and the Reddits, the great Silicon Valley Internet titans. Its leaders, a brother-and-sister team from Ohio, claim Imgur can scale without sacrificing its youthful spark or that warm, tight-knit feeling that makes its community so special.

It's the twilight of Imgur's adolescence. What better way to celebrate than a trip to summer camp?

Source: Jack Smith IV/Mic

When I first saw Sarah Schaaf — Imgur's director of community, and sister of Alan Schaaf, the founder and CEO — she was standing alone in a glade of redwoods, looking dazed with a megaphone on her hip, staring into the sky. "I think this week I've been all over the place, and nervous, and..." She trailed off. "But now, it's like, I'm ready."

It was a big day. We were two hours before the start of Camp Imgur, the site's first attempt at a convention for its gargantuan Internet cult. Dozens were showing up early, dragging bags and carts through dust clouds toward tents and tiny cabins. Sarah had been planning this for over a year, and she was ready to see Imgur made manifest.  

"They're all strangers, but they come from a place where I know I'll be accepted."

One hour later, campers dragged bags and carts through the billowing dust clouds of Camp Navarro. A security guard, carrying a cat paw on a stick, monitored the flood, standing against the camp's main lodge, which housed the cafe and the Wi-Fi. My roommate was Imgur's lawyer, Bob Ellis, the Internet-law attorney who's kept Imgur from any successful attempt at a lawsuit. 

Sarah had announced the camp seven months prior — a $150 ticket for the first 500 people who wanted to join the first major, national event for Imgur. It was the community's chance to jump off the front page of the site and into the real world.

Camp was filled with activities: a GIF-making workshop, an archery range with detestable faces from Game of Thrones pinned up for targets, a nightly s'mores bar, morning yoga. At a solar carving workshop, campers burned portraits of popular memes like Dickbutt and Grumpy Cat into planks of wood before turning the magnifying glasses around to light their cigarettes. There were presentations by notable Imgurians: "Chemistry Doc," a former teacher who's like Imgur's crowdsourced Bill Nye, and a chiseled dude known as Ruffcats, who looks like a well-tanned teen celebrity and runs the confessional series "Stay Classy, Imgur."

Alex Krumland is an Imgurian who competes on the show American Ninja Warrior in a black shirt and green suspenders, a tribute to the Imgur colors. He said he'd been to one of Sarah's trial meet-ups at a local San Francisco bar and loved it. "I feel like I can be myself with anyone here," Krumland told me while we watched a game of capture the flag. "I don't have to put on a front. They're all strangers, but they come from a place where I know I'll be accepted."

Source: Kile McCurdy

And then there was debauchery. Hours into day one, groups began to head into the woods and get high. As night fell, the darkness concealed the smoke and no one bothered to sneak away; the smell of good California weed hung in pockets around the campfire. 

And we drank. There were 20 kegs for the event; one Imgur employee did a rough calculation that there was enough for every attendee to have six drinks, but naturally they ran out of beer by the second evening. A team of Imgur developers developed a makeshift trade route through the winding valleys of California wine country, pillaging the markets of Mendocino County of every 30-rack of Bud Light they could find. Every once in a while, a bottle snuck itself in; I was beckoned inside one cabin by a camper in a giraffe onesie who mixed me a rum and coke.

"This place is fucking incredible," he told me when he handed the cup. He introduced himself as Isaac Klassen, the inventor of the Imgur Giraffe, the site's mascot. In the past year, he'd been picked up by Sarah to work as a contractor for the community support team.

We didn't hang out long. Klassen tromped off with a couple of Quebecoise girls in unicorn onesies.

Source: Mic/Jack Smith IV

Camp sex was everywhere. Day and night. Some campers kvetched that they'd be napping in a hammock at noon and they'd hear humping in the tents around them, or take to Imgur to complain that people were getting it on in the bunks right below them at night. Online, the envious thousands who couldn't make it followed the photo uploads with glee and awe, confessing their sexual attraction to the attendees.

"I don't know how I can stand having this much sex and freedom," said Mike Diepenbroek, a soldier in the U.S. Army who first heard about Imgur while stationed in Okinawa. He signed up for camp from Afghanistan. Like almost every camper I spoke to, he was amazed that the crowd was more well-rounded than the typical Internet nerd fare that you might expect from an online community with such a wonkish love of video games and fandom.

"I was expecting a bunch of shitheads and, like, four trolls," Diepenbroek said. "I'm honestly blown away." There were no fedoras in sight, but plenty of stereotypical netizens showed up: dudes proudly sporting actual vapers, bronies, a Wiccan priestess, That Guy With the Walking Stick. But mostly, the campers were what normative society would call bright, sociable and beyond well-adjusted, with a fairly even gender split, given Imgur's male-dominated traffic. 

Camp sex was everywhere. Day and night. Some campers kvetched that they'd be napping in a hammock at noon and they'd hear humping in the tents around them.

It was an idealized sample of the site's inhabitants. By sheer size, Imgur is one of the last major Internet communities that can truly be called a "culture," bound together by its bent for positivity and thirst for escapism. If you haven't heard of Confession Bear, "sera pls" and Javert, that's part of the point. Many popular Internet memes begin as obscure references but gain popularity as they percolate in Imgur's community, get remixed with Imgur's macro tool and finally become part of the fabric of the mainstream viral Web.

Every day, Imgurians are participating and building a single source of entertainment, with millions of eyeballs converging in one place. Visiting Imgur brings you to the central hub, the front page of its most viral images, each of which pulls in anywhere from about 50,000 to a few million views.

The easiest, if not crudest, way to explain Imgur is that it's like Pinterest but for dudes. According to rankings from analytics firm Comscore, Imgur is the No. 1 online destination for men in the U.S. age 18 to 34 in terms of audience composition. That's a higher composition than Vice, Reddit, BitTorrent and ESPN. Imgur's leaders call their demographic the "modest male" — not the nefarious "bro," but the kind of modern guy who appreciates nerd culture, video games, comics, subtle humor and puns. My god, the puns.

Source: Jack Smith IV/Mic

For loyal Imgurians, the site is a total time-sink. According to internal stats, 82% of Imgurians spend over three hours a week on the site, and 17% spend over 10 hours. After just three months, the new mobile Imgur app now accounts for over 50% of all upvotes, comments and other kinds of engagement.

An online destination that's a hub for mostly men immediately brings to mind a hotbed for porn, anger and idiocy, but Imgur is anything but. (Well, there's plenty of porn, if you're looking for it.) But a visit to Imgur is consistently cheery. The success of a photo, meme or comment is almost directly tied with its subtle humor or how uplifting it is — a phenomenon the Schaafs called "niceness at scale" when I met the team in New York a year ago. The front page usually has a smattering of feel-good stories or cries for support for an ailing loved one, and negative comments are almost always downvoted into total oblivion.

Imgur is like the bright side of the moon of the modest male identity online, for which the dark side is the toxic masculinity and self-obsessed intellectualism that is Reddit. Except that Imgur isn't subdivided into smaller communities where hateful collectives can stew; Imgur is no house divided.

As one black camper told me in passing, "There is no /r/Coontown on Imgur," referencing Reddit's struggle to limit the exposure of a fringe group of racists who took advantage of the site's free-speech idealism to build a small empire of hate speech.

Throughout the weekend, Sarah Schaaf — easily identified in the crowd by her lion's mane of curls — played camp counselor while Imgurians raved, scarfed down pies in eating contests and went on stargazing tours led by NASA representatives. When Saturday night's astronomy class was stymied by an overcast sky, one longtime Imgurian took the opportunity to propose to his girlfriend, whom he met at a summer camp as a teenager:

Source: Imgur

And in the thick of it all, slinking between crowds and dance floors, sometimes undetected, was Sarah's little brother, Alan Schaaf. I'd met Imgur's singular founding father before on the various metropolitan media tours he'd taken over the past year, always with handlers, never down among his people. I was quickly warned he had a secret competitive side when it came to sports, games and local poker nights.

If you were to look for the spark of Imgur's soul, it'd be Alan Schaaf.

"Ready to be fucking annihilated?" he asked me playfully when I stepped up to face him at a game of cornhole, that medieval beanbag game favored among Midwesterners. I scored no points. Alan coldly trounced me.

Aside from the occasional boisterousness around competition — all weekend, Alan was racing people up climbing walls and trying for the truest aim with a slingshot — he is modest, quiet and secretly clever, a lithe man with a shaved head and the same sharp blue eyes as his sister.

If you were to look for the spark of Imgur's soul, it'd be Alan Schaaf. He was the protean Imgurian, the model citizen whose whimsy, modesty and humor was the blueprint for Imgur's culture today. If Imgur's ethos is "niceness at scale," the identity of the Imgurian is Alan Schaaf at scale.

Source: Sarah Schaaf/Imgur

The treehouse that became a kingdom

Alan Schaaf grew up in Granville, Ohio, population roughly 5,000, a historic town near a smattering of churches and cornfields. Because he didn't identify as the "typical Granville person," he hit the Internet and started coding young. By 14, he was professionally making websites for his parents' colleagues in real estate. When he was 15, he was given a laptop, and started immediately hacking the hardware and customizing software from deep within Windows' hierarchical databases.

Alan Schaaf at the Crunchies awards in 2014.
Source: Steve Jennings/Getty Images

When he was a junior studying computer science at Ohio University in the late 2000s, he saw that his favored online community, the budding Reddit.com, was in need of a place to store its images. Reddit was, and still is, an aggregator, and it needed a home to put its original content. Alan had already built an early version of what we'd think of as Box or Google Drive for realtors, his first clients, to store pictures of houses. So he dug in and started coding.

On Feb. 23, 2009, he posted on Reddit that he'd made a simple utility just for them. It had no compressed images, basic cropping tools and porn was definitely allowed as long as it was legal.

"It's my gift to you," Alan wrote under the handle MrGrim. "Let's not see anymore Imageshack/Photobucket around here ;)"

Redditors ate it up. Even today, the front pages of many popular subreddits — including the amateur porn destination /r/GoneWild — are driven almost exclusively by photos hosted on Imgur.

Source: The Internet Archive

Then Alan's college community got wind of what he was doing from his dorm room. Imageshack tried to buy Imgur in the first six months, but Schaaf thought it was too early to sell. Professors found out. A email to the campus community highlighting noteworthy student projects included Alan's small image-hosting site, and Matt Strader, an executive in residence at a local incubator called Tech Growth Ohio, caught notice. TGO was mainly doling out cash for professors and entrepreneurs with a pet projects in mind. Alan was the first student to land a small grant.

Alan had a desk down the hall from Strader, who started working with him daily on how to turn the small site into a business. Strader turned from mentor to business partner. When he graduated, Alan took on Strader as employee No. 1 to handle the business side of Imgur while Alan kept coding, and they moved the company to San Francisco. Today, Strader is still Imgur's chief operating officer.

But as much as redditors loved Alan's file-storage utility, they wanted a way to get to the images they were seeing on Reddit without having to comb through forum after forum. So Alan built a front page, an unadulterated stream of uploaded images at Imgur.com, which he was largely curating himself. When this got tiring, he cloned Reddit's upvoting mechanism. He stepped back and let the hive mind do its work.

Then there was commenting, originally built to be a caption contest. The most upvoted comments were meant to be the funniest or best caption for the photo, and to a certain extent, this is generally true. But Alan saw people speaking to one another, using @-replies to talk and compose makeshift threads.

Alan and Sarah Schaaf
Source: TheOtherAlan/Imgur

"You can't stick to your thing because it's yours; you have to shape the product based on how people use it," Alan said. "So the data said that people were talking to each other. They weren't just captions, they were communications."

He linked the handles to user profiles, built in comment threads and gave users the ability to message each other. That was a pivotal point, according to Alan, a moment that may have decided Imgur's future. He could have focused on file storage and built something like, say, Dropbox, a cloud storage company now worth about $10 billion. ("Camp Dropbox, 2016!" Sarah shouted when I mentioned this possibility.)

Instead, Alan dug down into the comments and uploads to build a community, starting with himself. He set up community rules and started modeling the behavior he wanted. After building the Imgur that was useful, he started focusing on the Imgur he thought was fun.

They worked out of an apartment at first before moving into a one-room office above a shoe shop. As the community grew from thousands to tens of thousands and reaching into the millions, Alan continued as the lead programmer. As the company grew, he was building the schemas, building the database by hand, writing the specs.

Alan Schaaf needed someone to be the custodian of the community, the new voice of Imgur, the wrangler to handle the growing culture. And who better to become master of the House That Schaaf Built than another Schaaf?

Shortly after the company moved to San Francisco, he called on his big sister, Sarah, to become Imgur's first community manager. She quickly became the much-loved, ever-present, sometimes-fetishized and always benevolent Queen of Imgur. "I did social, I did support, I was the one hat if you needed to talk to somebody." Sarah Schaaf told Mic

Imgur celebrity Ruffcats with Sarah Schaaf.

By early 2014, Imgur had outgrown Reddit in traffic and had 15 employees. Still, Imgur hadn't realized its full potential: It was a profitable company with one of the largest-growing audiences on the Internet, but it had no sophisticated roadmap for how to become a media titan. Alan was fielding offers from tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley to either buy or invest in the company. Eventually, he took a $40 million investment from kingmaking venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz — the same investors with a stake in Airbnb, Lyft, Facebook, Twitter and Skype.

And thus began Imgur's second act. In the year since, Imgur has grown to four times that size, taking on a world-class sales team, additional community support staff, new offices and a cadre of coders excited to be part of an Andreessen-backed rocket ship.

Alan has transitioned from being the leader of the pit crew to the leader of a major Internet company. The master engineer has had to become a corporate leader, handing the wrench and screwdriver over to new hires and doing things like solidifying company "beliefs and values." And Sarah now has her own support staff, leaving her to think big-picture and plan events like Camp Imgur.

Looking back, the most upvoted comment on that original announcement, prophetic and still prescient, was: "Suggestion: Figure out how to make it pay for itself so you don't have to shut it down in six months." Until the Andreessen money came in, the company was bootstrapped, healthy and profitable. Now, they've put rocket fuel in the engines, and they have to sell Imgur to the new generation of top-tier advertisers.

The first lesson to understanding Imgur is to remember that Imgur isn't turning into a social network. It's turning into a media empire. Don't think Facebook, or Twitter, or even Pinterest. Think Vice. Think MTV.

The last bastion of online community

The Internet is feeling smaller and smaller. Facebook force-feeds you the same small collections of friends; it galvanizes your long-held political beliefs. Reddit splinters small communities into even smaller communities and subreddits. Recommendation engines like Spotify play you more of the same music it knows you'll like. It's a strategy that keeps users satisfied and dependable — not to mention much easier to advertise to.

"I don't know how young people these days do it," Alan said. "The Internet's gone down this path of more isolated experiences to the point where you log on, and it's the same thing you see around you every day. At what point am I meeting new people or finding new interests?"

A brony, a security guard and a soldier.
Source: Mic/Jack Smith IV

Imgur satisfies the same hunger for shared experience that's given birth to a renaissance in EDM festivals and drives us all to Twitter to desperately connect over awards shows and reality TV. Imgur gives you something profoundly in common with the people you share that world with.

Steve Patrizi, VP of sales and marketing, was one of the glitzy hires from the first few months of Imgur's major fundraise, brought in to help premium advertisers test the waters of Imgur without pissing off the community. I found Patrizi manning the keg at camp before leading a revolt against an obstinate DJ who wouldn't play Top 40 hits to the pleading masses.

For Patrizi, the answer to what Imgur is is simple: Imgur is an entertainment hub, an escapist destination for culture and subculture. Even when Imgur is informative, the takeaway isn't pure information as much as it is awe and wonder.

The best way to think of Imgur, in terms of its cultural significance to the social web, is to compare it to the rebellious MTV network of the 1980s. Not today's mainstreamized MTV, but the MTV that defined the "MTV Generation."

"When MTV first came to the stage, ABC, CBS and NBC were wholesome, mainstream brands — they were television," he told Mic. "Now, to an extent, that's Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They're mainstream, wholesome experiences about how great people's lives and marriages are."

"Millennials don't hang out on Facebook anymore. They're sick of the feed. But Imgur is where you're going to be entertained and be with a community."

"The Internet's gotten really boring," agreed Imgur Sales Director Kat Fernandez, whom Patrizi brought over from LinkedIn. "Millennials don't hang out on Facebook anymore. They're sick of the feed. But Imgur is where you're going to be entertained and be with a community."

How to advertise to Imgur's discerning millennials: On Facebook, a brand can set up their own page, test different kinds of ads against small audiences, target niches and control their message. On Imgur, a front-page advertiser throws itself on the mercy of every Imgurian at once, and a crafted quip with enough upvotes can assassinate any brand's attempt to impress. An early attempt by Warner Bros. at putting ads on the front page led to community backlash and downvoting the ad into oblivion.

So now, Patrizi and his team are hand-holding new advertisers one by one on how to approach the community on their terms, crafting the kind of posts that can pass the test of the Imgurian tribunal. "For advertisers, it's more like entering a geographic market," Patrizi said. "You need to recognize the whole audience: They have their own norms, their own culture."

Source: Jack Smith IV/Mic

And in their past few trials, they've been nailing it every time. "I have to say, please give your market research department a HUGE high-five," reads the top-voted comment on last week's first ad for Old Spice. "This is tailoring ads to your audience done well."

Another highly upvoted comment on an eBay ad says, "You get us, eBay. You get us." But it's not eBay or Old Spice or Blunt Talk that gets Imgurians. It's the team at Imgur helping brands tell stories. 

They're treading carefully. And for now, they're standing between advertisers and Imgurians and trying at all costs to prevent a community meltdown. Looking at a far-flung cousin like Reddit — or its predecessor Digg — it can be nigh impossible to win a community back once it's turned on the gatekeepers.

We have to be very careful when talking about Reddit. Imgur employees are cautious or detached when talking about their estranged sibling site. Ask Alan Schaaf about Reddit's colorful and ongoing community saga, and you'll get anything from "The challenges they face are different from ours" to "No comment." Are the two sites related? Sure — by blood only.

Alan isn't wrong to think Imgur and Reddit are more unrelated each year, though the company, perhaps naively, believes that everyone else is on the same page about this. One common and pervasive stereotype about Imgur, for example, is that its traffic is still almost entirely dependent on people clicking through from Reddit. 

Reddit has long since become a minority source of Imgur visits. Of the 29.3 million Imgur visitors measured by analytics firm Comscore, and Reddit's 31.5 million, they only shared 10 million of those viewers. In other words, only a third of Imgur users visited Reddit at all throughout the month.

Partly this is because journalists write about what journalists use. Twitter and Reddit are daily sources of reporting, and those two sites are watched obsessively by the media — a simple blog post or change in leadership at Reddit can kick off hundreds of think pieces about the future of social media, and constant media scrutiny of Twitter's financials put a heavy hand on the inevitable ousting of Twitter CEO Dick Costolo.

And against the adventurous or turbulent narratives of characters like Ellen Pao, Alexis Ohanian and Jack Dorsey, Alan Schaaf is a modest and well-liked CEO.

But even if Reddit has gone from a codependent hub to a churning maelstrom on Imgur's distant horizon, Reddit is a constant reminder of what can go terribly wrong when a community festers and develops a hive mind bent on mutiny.

There but for the grace of the mob, Imgur goes.

The future of Imgur

The world of Imgurians flies further under the radar than you'd think its size would allow for. Think of the commonly trotted-out list of Internet titans, social giants or modern media empires. Imgur, in its viscous state, is unlikely to be first to mind for anyone drumming up a quick list. Because for now, Imgur as a tool is nearly ubiquitous, while Imgur as a destination is a relative secret.

"The Arab Spring was a moment that put Twitter on everybody's radar," Patrizi said. "That moment is still ahead for us. Then we could change, and then, what would that change mean?"

That's a good question. Like in any culture, Imgurians feel collective ownership over what's theirs. The Imgur leadership has a firm grip on the reins for now, but there's still a risk, and the risk is that they sell the soul. After all, look at what happened to MTV: It chased mass appeal into oblivion, abandoning the subversive music video for a reliable and cheap staple of reality shows.

Alan is dedicated to the core demographic. For now. But that same sense of wonder and escapism is scalable, he thinks, should they ever reach the ceiling on what's possible with their "modest males."

"Imgur is grassroots. But I wouldn't want this to be, like, a festival. Bands, porta-potties. There's plenty of those."

"If my mom goes to Imgur right now, she's going to like a lot less stuff than what I would like, and that's exactly what we intend," Alan Schaaf said. "But in a broad sense, the way Imgur makes you feel connected is a basic human need. To feel like there are other people like you. To have moments of downtime."

The campers feel it. Maybe not online — where changes in the makeup of the community shift subtly and slowly, observed by only the longtime members — but right there in person. It was easy for the campers to imagine Camp Imgur, a resounding success on all fronts for attendees who sad they'd come back as many years as Sarah would hold it, becoming an event five or 10 times its size.

"Imgur is grassroots," a camper named Derrick said after lunch. "But I wouldn't want this to be, like, a festival. Bands, porta-potties. There's plenty of those."

Sarah Schaaf knows there will be future events — rumors of a possible cruise on "the S.S. Imgur" bounced around camp — though she's not foaming at the mouth thinking of the possible profits from running a worldwide event series. But word is spreading on the site of how great camp was. Hundreds have said they're dying to come out next year. Even at this first camp, there were a few attendees who simply glommed on with a friend or significant other because the event looked trendy. The hangers-on weren't a problem — yet.

Source: Jack Smith IV/Mic

"I came here to meet all of you, and you," a camper named Ivana said by the campfire, pointing to strangers who became fast friends. "At a concert, you come to see a band. You need security, they'd need to be clearly marked. It would change the vibe and lose the intimacy.

"When you go to an event like a festival, do you feel included?" she asked. "No, because then you're not a community. You're an audience."

This is what's at stake for Alan and Sarah Schaaf. They are at the helm of a community defined as much by who is left out than who is let in, the defining bond that keeps a subculture from the dreaded mainstream. It's not Alan they need to scale. Or their demographic. Or niceness. 

It's intimacy — the single, precarious bond that holds Imgur's rocket together as it careers skyward through a crueler, colder Internet.