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

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


t 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.

Stashed in: Brands!, Young Americans, Teh Internets, Culture, Advertising, Monetization, Imgur!, Active Users, Bite-sized Content, Ohio, Microentertainment, Alan Schaaf

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This is Imgur making an effort to distance itself from Reddit.

That effort just might work.

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.

I'm surprised their male population is much bigger than their female population. 

Wait, what?!

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.


Do you consider Reddit a social network?

Yes, if users are allowed to follow and communicate with individuals. 

No profiles, no real names, and no way to tell if another user is just messing with you.

Doesn't sound like a social network to me. 

yet people probably take it more seriously than their facebook? 

Yup, distancing themselves from Reddit:

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.

Monetization: Teach brands to appeal to Millennials.

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."

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.

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."

I guess I am not a core demographic of the site? 

Not as far as advertisers are interested. Sorry.

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