Chances are if you've heard of Imgur, you've heard of it in the context of Reddit.
Imgur's easily the most popular image host for Reddit users, and that isn't an accident. It was created by Reddit user Alan Schaaf in 2009, as a place that could both store images and handle massive surges of traffic — images linked by Reddit would often be removed from places like Photobucket for pulling in large amounts of traffic once they were linked to. Imgur, on the other hand, proudly flaunts its data stats: The top image on the site today has burned through over 63.54 GB of bandwidth.
Imgur's popularity with Reddit users has been blamed more than a few times for turning Reddit into a 4chan-style image board rather than a place to find interesting links. But image-heavy subreddits — think /r/funny and /r/wtf — are what have made Reddit huge, and, for many casual users, form the backbone of the site.
But Imgur is growing into something more than a backbone. According to Alexa rankings, Imgur has outranked Reddit in traffic for at least six months. Imgur's founder Alan Schaaf says the site is growing between 5–10% a month and doesn't find the Alexa rating differences that surprising. He says he sees Imgur content as inherently more social.
"The images end up all over the internet," Schaaf says. "Essentially, Imgur makes it really easy for your image to go viral."
Schaaf started the image service while he was enrolled at Ohio University. Imgur, four years later, has 13 full-time employees with a headquarters based in California.
As of September 2012, more than 25 million images were uploaded to the site each month.
Imgur's community formed largely as an outgrowth of Reddit's. As such, Reddit and Imgur's demographics skew in the same direction: They favor, above all, 20-year-old men. Schaaf says he always intended for Imgur's community to co-exist symbiotically with Reddit's.
"I hope it never competes with Reddit," he says. "Over time we added in tools for people to communicate with each other and then notifications and direct messaging, but we built those tools because the community was growing, whether we liked it or not."
Whether Schaaf likes it or not, Imgur users — Imgurians, as they're known — are striking out on their own. Imgur's community team members say they're constantly impressed with the way Imgur users have started to make their own memes, independently of the sites they used to depend on. And their community, young as it may be, is developing a distinct personality.
"They're more interested in the simple sort of communication, not as much arguing," says Imgur's Community Director Sarah Schaaf, who is founder Alan Schaaf's sister.
Or as the as Urban Dictionary defines Imgurian:
An oversensitive, depressed, person with very liberal political views who spends hours upon hours on a website Imgur.com. Claims to belong to a community of internet people who all share sensitive emotions and prefer hearing nice lies instead of the harsh reality of the world. They are a very gullible species and will upvote anything that involves tragic events, cats, loss of fat, dogs, cancer patients, and other really really gay stuff.
Schaaf has also noticed signs of a more female-friendly environment on Imgur than what you might find on Reddit.
"Demographically, we have way more males than females, but female users do tend to stand out more," She says.
Take one of Tuesday's top posts. Below are two different comment sections about the same image of a girl running a marathon. One, from Reddit, lambasts users attacking the girl for "whoring herself" out for upvotes on Reddit; the other, posted on Imgur, is a string of harmless jokes, relatively free of judgement about the female user who posted it.
Imgur is developing its own post forms too — personal photo essays are especially popular. This popular post on Imgur's frontpage from Monday, titled "Thank You," is a collection of photos posted by a woman thanking a soldier who saved her husband while the two men were both serving overseas. It has over 5,000 upvotes on Imgur and wasn't directly linked to a corresponding Reddit post. It was, in other words, Imgur's content.
Sarah Schaaf admits that the photo essay trend, which uses the site's album feature, was surprising. "I don't know why that stood out for the Imgur community, but those definitely always make it to the front page," Schaaf says. "Albums in general are more appreciated by the Imgur community than they would be by the Reddit community."
Imgur users' love of photo essays — and photos in general — can be problematic. As recently as Monday night, an entire New York Times photo essay was uploaded to Imgur and received 53,000 views and almost 5,000 upvotes on Reddit. The top comments on the post are a fight about attribution. (Many users claim that copyright is worth the convenience: Imgur links work better with the Reddit Enhancement Suite browser extension and Reddit's mobile app.)
Despite the site's massive traffic and an abundance of clearly copyrighted material on the site, Sarah Schaaf says that Imgur's community team doesn't encounter a lot of issues with copyright.
"We're DCMA immune because our terms of service state that you are the copyright holder of the image and, of course, if somebody's not, which often happens, we'll quickly respond to any takedown request that we get," she says. "But that doesn't happen that much."
Imgur's most recent expansion happened in June, after Reddit widely banned links to Quickmeme, a popular image site and meme generator. Imgur was flooded with requests to build a replacement.
"We had plans to make a meme generator, but we were focusing on the mobile app first, then we got emails from Redditors saying 'you should make a meme generator,' so we pulled an all-nighter," Schaaf says.
Both Alan and Sarah see the Imgur community growing, though they're not exactly sure in what way. Both stress the importance of staying hands-off with the community, aside from light content moderation for gore, illegal porn, and copyright.
"How are we going to grow it, I'm not exactly sure, but it is," Alan says.
According to Sarah, users discovering that Reddit and Imgur's communities are different from each other "has already happened."
"I just think it's really awesome that we have a community that obviously has nothing to do with Reddit, with our own users," she says. "Users are discovering 'I can do this independently of Reddit if I want to.'"