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Photo sharing site Imgur is growing up

Updated Aug 4th, 2015 12:37PM EDT
Imgur Funny Gifs

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One way to go about building a company, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone once told me, is to start by creating something fun. If you do that, he said, more people are likely to flock to it – and if lots of people flock to it, it has the potential to be not just fun, but important.

Image hosting site Imgur is one example of a company that’s more or less following that same blueprint. It started out, of course, as a hub of memes, funny Gifs and cat pics, and it’s still that – but it’s also maturing as a company and content platform, in ways big and small.

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Imgur at the moment is thinking about things like new revenue streams and shoring up the various channels through which users engage with its content. The company – launched in 2009 from founder and CEO Alan Schaaf’s Ohio University dorm room – also is preparing for the next phase of its existence, the one that comes after young and hip.

That means more of a focus on the company’s future than on its past, lest it go from being seen as the fun, cool kid today to the paunchy middle-aged guy tomorrow who’s still schlepping around in a Ramones t-shirt. All of which is to say this: Imgur – like some of the social Web’s bigger names lately including Twitter and Reddit – is trying to grow up.

On the heels of raising $40 million last year, for example, Imgur has been making a flurry of moves to show it’s serious about sticking around. Earlier this summer, the company – which says it now has 150 million monthly active users and that its images garner an average of 60 billion monthly views – unveiled promoted posts as a new monetization source.

Schaaf told BGR the way it works is promoted posts from brands like eBay get slotted into a user’s stream, where they’re tagged in the top right corner with a clear “promoted” label. He said the company wants the posts to be just as good and interesting as the user-generated ones, which is why the company also added a few Imgurians, as the site’s users are called, to its Promoted Posts team.

It’s still something of a beta experiment for the company, which started the promoted posts in May and has incrementally added brands to the mix since then. It’s an awareness play for the participating brands, and the tentativeness of the rollout is to strike a balance between the new revenue and preserving the user experience.

Imgur also has been looking for the promoted post content to generally fall in at least one of four buckets – informational, inspiring, funny and nostalgic. And Schaaf said what the company has heard so far from users, it likes.

A recent Promoted Post in honor of Father’s Day, for example, showed images of various drones available to buy and informed viewers that “Nothing says, ‘I love the father in my life’ like letting him patrol the sky like a bird of prey.” Among the comments below the post was this one, from “deathpandaa” – “If all ads are like this, I wouldn’t mind the ads. Very cool. Now I want a drone.”

“Our content is only successful if it’s a success for the user first,” Schaaf said, “We take the community into account with everything we do. And when we make changes like we did by adding Promoted Posts, we share why we’re doing it.”

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On the mobile front, meanwhile, Imgur’s new iOS and Android apps have both been out for a few months now. Imgur launched its first official iOS app in March and overhauled its Android app in June, the latter including tweaks like a new image upload section and redesigned card-based gallery.

The company’s users also remain dedicated and hyper-loyal, to say the least. Eighty-two percent of Imgurians, according to the company, spend three-plus hours a week on the site. Seventeen percent also spend more than 10 hours.

Those stats don’t include mobile usage, but the company does say over half of all engagement is taking place within the company’s apps. That also explains why the company is hiring rapidly right now, especially looking for mobile engineers.

This time last year, Imgur stood at less than 20 people. Now it’s at 65.

“More and more, I think the Internet is becoming this personalized experience bubble you can’t get out of,” Schaaf said about what he sees as the site’s reason for being. “Policies like having to carry your real name everywhere, it’s killing authenticity. Imgur allows me to break outside.”

The company’s origin story feeds into where Schaaf thinks it still has room to grow from here.

Schaaf, whose sister Sarah is Imgur’s director of community, says he’s been a denizen of the Web for as long as he can remember. He got his first laptop when he was in the fifth grade and discovered online communities called forums around that time, becoming fascinated with how they facilitated knowledge-sharing.

“I was inspired to see how somebody could maybe ask a one-sentence question, and another stranger would answer with an in-depth reply,” he said. “That’s actually how I learned programming, from forums and tutorials on the Internet.

“It’s the same thing that we eventually realized has made Imgur successful – connecting with people you don’t know, facilitating authentic self-expression.”

That latter idea, it should be noted, is a precisely worded phrase – not to be confused with the company claiming it’s a free-speech platform, which it doesn’t. The company had a bit of a PR crisis along these lines back in June, when some users interpreted a clampdown on NSFW content as Imgur purging itself of undesirable content.

Imgur says that wasn’t what was going on and that it’s always had rules around things like hateful and pornographic content. The change was about more uniformity of enforcement of the rules it’s always had, the company said, and that open, authentic expression and limits of some kinds don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The phrase you hear often from the company and from Schaaf is “open expression through images.” Grappling with the implications of that promise gives Imgur a taste of what services like Twitter are going through at the moment, with the latter having to balance users demanding a microphone and a wide berth with Twitter wanting to do more to fix the bullying and harassment that have plagued the service.

For Imgur, growing up means all of that, and more. Schaaf thinks there’s plenty of work also left to do around the mobile experience, saying that “the apps are pretty minimum viable product right now, even though we see our engagement there through the roof.”

To Stone’s point about starting a company with an intent to build something fun, that ambition is also something that still drives Schaaf.

“We want to increase the amount of positivity people experience in their daily lives,” he said. “People now – it’s like, they take out their phone, and a lot of times they don’t even know why. When they do, we want to be that button they tap that helps spread joy throughout the world and into their lives. That’s the mission we’re on.”

It’s a mission that involves Imgur continuing to scale as a company around a deceptively simple premise – helping users tumble down a rabbit hole of content that feels good and, corny as it might sound, injecting a bit of fun alongside the other things they turn to their phones for.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.