TIME

This Is the Secret Power at the End of the Internet

Imgur CEO Alan Schaaf Imgur

Tom Hanks is clutching a giant banana, and he looks a bit perplexed, annoyed even. It’s clear it wasn’t his idea to brandish this fruit in the middle of a bar and put a photo of the scene on the Internet. It must have been the guy with the broad grin right next to him, a Reddit user who goes by the name ASharkToof. “Explaining the banana to him was pretty awkward,” he explained in the caption for the photo, “but banana for scale.”

The odd image generated nearly 2,000 up votes on Reddit, the popular online message board, and helped popularize the nascent meme of using bananas as a makeshift measuring tool. But the photo’s story didn’t really begin on Reddit. It started on Imgur, the five-year-old photo-hosting site from which a huge proportion of visually viral things now come.

In the dial-up days of the Internet, people were punished if their online photos became too popular. A picture that was widely shared on websites and message boards was likely to exceed its bandwidth limit and be replaced with an ad for a photo-hosting site or a gross-out picture to deter people from sharing photos without permission. Alan Schaaf, an avid Reddit user (or “redditor”) who began writing computer code at age 14, saw this as an anachronism at odds with the increasingly viral nature of the Web.

So in 2009, while attending Ohio University, he launched a simple website where people could upload pictures and let them receive unlimited views for free. The site, called Imgur, was an instant hit with his Reddit brethren. “You weren’t locked down to one platform,” Schaaf says. “You could blast it all over the Internet and put it in your forum or online community.” In the same way that YouTube videos can be embedded and viewed across the Web, so too can Imgur pictures.

The memes and humor of Imgur (pronounced “Image-er”) quickly began to seep into other parts of the Web, from Tumblr blogs to Facebook posts to BuzzFeed listicles. Now Imgur says it has more than 120 million unique visitors globally and 1.5 billion page views per month. Third-party analytics firm comScore puts the company’s monthly unique visitors in the U.S. at 19 million, eclipsing Flickr and Photobucket. Imgur is one of the 50 most-trafficked sites in the world, above Craigslist, CNN and its progenitor Reddit, according to Alexa, a web analytics company. More than 1.5 million new images are uploaded to the site every day. “We are essentially like patient zero for viral images,” Schaaf says.

The site has helped usher in a new era of visual communication, where a GIF of Michael Cera collapsing in a heap can mean “I’m having a bad day” without explicitly saying it. “[Imgur] really kind of understood the ethos of what image-sharing was about,” says Ben Huh, CEO of the viral media company Cheezburger, which runs popular websites like Know Your Meme. “Imgur is what enabled Reddit to become this meme machine.”

For a site of its size, though, Imgur is still relatively unknown to many. Schaaf says the trouble is some people think of Imgur as a utility ”like electricity” rather than an entertainment destination all its own. The company is trying to change that perception this year by making its website more user-friendly. A new tagging feature unveiled last week allows users to easily organize and search for images in different categories. Users can also create custom galleries based on tags, and a new advanced search tool will make finding specific pictures easier. Combined with Imgur’s already massive user base, these changes could help cement the site as the “YouTube of images,” according to Schaaf.

That type of branding will help to lure in more advertisers, which generate the bulk of the company’s revenue. Schaff wouldn’t disclose much about sales but said that the company is profitable (he famously has only ever spent $7 of his own money on the company, in order to buy the original domain name). Brands such as Pepsi and video game developer Rockstar have paid for sponsored posts on the site aimed at getting the same viral traction as regular users’ images. Imgur also raised $40 million in its first-ever round of venture funding in April, so it has the funds to expand and experiment.

There will be challenges for the site as it tries to grow from dorm room side project to media company. Imgur’s liberal use of images gathered from all corners of the Internet brushes up against copyright law. The company says it regularly removes images that have been flagged as violating copyright. That issue, along with some of the crude content that sometimes crops up on the site—pornography, for example, is allowed—could spook brand advertisers. And because the site deals mostly in images of anonymous people posted by anonymous users, it has a less firm grip on users’ personal identities than data-rich companies like Facebook and Google. “Everybody is just so tied into their incumbent social networks and services that they’ve been using for years,” says Brian Blau, research director in consumer technologies at Gartner. “Those are very hard to unseed.”

Schaaf argues that Imgur’s community is thriving and, being heavily composed of young males, difficult for advertisers to reach elsewhere. Power users, who call themselves Imgurians, often have real-world meetups across the country. A pair of them have even gotten married. As long as these users keep posting pictures of cute pets and carefully measured bananas, Imgur’s clout will continue to rise. “We’re going to own the image, the meme and the animated GIF on the Internet,” Schaaf says. “That form of self-expression will be ours.”

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