(Imgur/iStock)

Since the day in 2009 when a bored college senior coded it, Imgur has lived in the long shadows cast by the much better-known Reddit. The site was built to help Redditors host their GIFs and photos; it became one of the world’s 50 largest websites thanks entirely to the traffic that Reddit referred over.

Now, seven years since its dorm-room birth, Imgur is stepping out: the site is no longer the Photobucket to Reddit’s Myspace, but its own geeky, meme-surfacing, gate-keeping social platform. On May 24, Reddit announced that it had developed its own in-house image host, effectively dissolving the long-time, informal partnership between the two sites.

It’s the biggest challenge ever faced by the site Mic once called “the last true Internet culture” left on the web — and by all accounts, Imgur’s about to rise to it.

“I’m just not worried about what other people are doing,” said Sarah Schaaf, Imgur’s long-time director of community. (Her brother Alan is the site’s founder.) “I’ve seen us evolve from an image-hosting site to this massive, vibrant community firsthand.”

Schaaf is barely a member of Imgur’s target market, herself, though she does serve as something of a den mother: 80 percent of the site’s users are men between the ages of 18 and 34. Academics who study the site have described an “Imgurian fratmosphere;” tech writers sometimes call it the male equivalent of Pinterest. Neither metaphor really captures Imgur’s nerdy, earnest vibe, which lies somewhere between World of Warcraft guild and Eagle Scout sleepaway camp.

Every day, millions of images are uploaded to Imgur: comics, image macros, video game screengrabs, porn. Some of those images ascend, according to community vote, all the way up to the site’s front page — where they stand a very good chance of going viral. In fact, a 2015 study found that major memes and viral stories frequently take off on Reddit and Imgur in parallel, long before hopping over to Twitter, Facebook and the wider Internet.

You may recall the photo of the smug, pooping baby who recently became a sensational macro. Or that mind-boggling GIF of Elijah Wood and Daniel Radcliffe, slowly morphing into each other. 

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Or maybe you don’t: One of the many peculiar things about Imgur is that even as it’s swelled to more than 150 million users, it’s maintained its own distinct, off-kilter aesthetic: a certain self-referential, raised-brow rowdiness, paired with a love for all things punny, feline and phallic.

“It reminds me of what Facebook was like before my grandparents got it,” said Jason Walter, a 34-year-old super-user who makes reaction GIFs under the name editingandlayout. “None of the political stuff, no one trying to sell you oils or wrap — just, ‘this is funny,’ ‘this is cool,’ ‘this is Nic Cage’s face on a unicorn.’”

This is not, incidentally, how Imgur started — the Imgurians themselves were never part of the plan. According to long-repeated lore, Alan Schaaf hacked the site together while he was a computer science student at Ohio University, as  he was frustrated by Reddit’s lack of image-hosting options. The site was easy to use, unusually fast, and devoid of the obtrusive ads favored by other image hosts; by 2012, almost 70 percent of Reddit’s most popular content sourced from Imgur — and the overwhelming majority of Imgur’s traffic funneled through Reddit.

Before long, however, users began seeing uses for Imgur that that Schaaf himself hadn’t thought of. Reddit’s posts are, for instance, splintered into tens of thousands of interest-based subgroups, which means there’s no one place to see all the popular photos uploaded to it. Imgur could provide a gallery, though — and within months, it did. Later, there came the means, per user request, to comment, vote, post under one account, and send other users messages.

“We built the community based on what they requested,” Schaaf said. “It was a very organic evolution.”

By 2013, Imgur was hosting some 600 million pictures from 100 million monthly users, and they were no longer clicking solely from Reddit. Imgur’s front page — a voted list of viral photos — had become a destination in itself. The mechanics behind that page can be tricky; everything below the viral threshold is essentially a free-for-all. When I posted a call-out on Imgur last week — including what I think is a pretty funny picture of my dog — the post quickly got downvoted into oblivion. Friendlier Imgurians in the site’s community forums suggested that next time I try superhero GIFs, “the female form” or puns. Schaaf echoed that advice: You have to speak comedy, science and sci-fi if you want to hang with Imgurians.

It’s unclear, alas, if Imgur can maintain that personality and still continue to grow. In fact, that’s the biggest challenge the site faces, Schaaf says: How to compete with the Internet’s larger, more mainstream social networks without becoming one of them.

That’s not the only challenge Imgur faces now, either: There’s the little matter of actually making money, which Imgur has begun attempting through brand-promoted posts. There’s also the fact — which neither Imgur nor Reddit really want to discuss — that nearly half of Imgur’s traffic still comes directly from Reddit.

Nonetheless, Imgurians — who tend to root for the underdog — remain pretty confident that they have what it takes to hack it on their own. In February, the site hired a former Zynga VP as its chief operating officer and a former Amazon executive to oversee product; its staff has grown to 65 from half that much a year ago. Heck, Imgur hosted a literal summer camp last year, and more than 500 people paid $150 to spend a long weekend drinking and gabbing about memes in the woods north of San Francisco.

“I’ve gone to a couple Reddit meet-ups,” said Walter, who taught some workshops on GIF-making at the camp. “They were awkward. Imgur isn’t anything like that.”

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