Photography, having started off as a hobby of a privileged group of people over a century ago, is now seen as an integral part of daily practices by millions of people worldwide. Mass-produced cameras and mobile phones made the process of taking photos a popular, cheap, and undeniably convenient activity. Consequently, the avalanche of photos taken on the planet (and in outer space too) created a significant demand for the services where people can upload their photos, share them with friends (or the rest of humanity), get feedback and comments, etc. Thus, following the logics of the economics “demand creates supply”, the need of photo-related services was successfully satisfied on multiple levels. As of this writing there are thousands of photo-sharing services, each with its own niche, target groups and functions. Although the overwhelming majority of these services copy the features of one another, the true leaders of the industry have their unique face and specific structure, making them appealing to people and thus popular and widely spread services. This post will focus on one of the leaders of the Internet photo-sharing – Imgur.
The phrase in the headline belongs to Alan Schaaf, the founder of Imgur, and was used to describe the motivations behind creating another photo-sharing website. The usability problems encountered in similar services, as well as the lack of some necessary features forced a student in Ohio to raise a question – “if there is no good enough service on the market, why don’t I create one myself?” That is how one of the biggest companies in the industry with over 70 million unique users and 300 million uploaded images in 2012 alone was founded. Interestingly, Imgur was launched as recently as 2009, thus its exponential growth to date is truly impressive. Indeed, what makes this site so attractive, what is so special about its structure, so unique about its tools and features that compels people to type Imgur into their browsers? In this post I will take a closer look at the structure and design of Imgur and try to deduce how these affect the social behavior of its users and attract people to use the site.
A number of scholars have already pointed out the most common and widespread design patterns and structures of Imgur-alike services. Liking (and disliking), commenting on posts, geo-tagging and sharing with friends on other social networks are among the most common features which to a some extent exist on most of these services. Additionally, the very fact that the overwhelming majority of such services have both desktop and mobile versions is not surprising. Furthermore, given that Imgur-alike services are the creations of Web 2.0, features such as harnessing collective intelligence, viral-ism in all its manifestations, the constant change of old features and adding of new ones, and “innovation in assembly” are integral parts of these services. Hence, I decided to dedicate this post to more particular and specific features of Imgur. Moreover, if all the services have a similar number and quality of tools, it is the special features that set them apart which in turn make them more appealing and help them reach and grow their target audiences.
The core idea of Imgur is to host photos uploaded by users. The uniqueness of Imgur is that the the images are not removed from the site as long as they are getting at least 1 view every 6 months. Hence, the service is motivating people to post something interesting for other users. Although this particular feature of Imgur may seem a minor detail, for some users the fact that their photos stick around for a long time may be a contributing factor to upload more interesting images and hence increase the overall popularity of the service.
Another specific feature of the service is “April fools’ jokes”, which seem to be unique for photo-sharing sites of that kind. The concept implies that every Fool’s day the company releases a special entertaining feature, allowing people to make fun of themselves and others. For instance, in 2011 the service implemented the Catification feature, allowing users to automatically add cats to any uploaded image by just clicking on them. The company then released 2 more fools’ features the following years. One could argue that this detail is insignificant, however I believe that users not only expect functionality from the service, but also entertainment, something which Imgur has successfully harnessed in order to gratify the needs of its audience.
The final specific feature of the site is a make-a-meme button, allowing users to create images superimposed with text for humorous effect. The site provides a wide range of images for generating memes as well as galleries of successful and popular image macros. Given the unprecedented growth of popularity of memes on the Internet over the last couple of years, this tool which not only allows users to look at these images, but also create their own is undoubtedly set to soar in popularity.
Business is business
For a long time the company supported itself with individual small donations provided by users. However with the growth of its popularity and a consequent increase in money required to support the existence of free photo-hosting, Imgur decided to change its financial policies and implement a number of tools allowing the company to generate bigger revenues. Advertising, pro accounts, merchandise and commercial hosting were implemented. I don’t think this event was unexpected for users, given the logic that an enormous amount of money is needed to support the site. Moreover, the very fact that Imgur has over 70 million unique users indicates the large potential revenues from advertising that the company may yield. However, it is noteworthy that on-site advertising, mostly implemented via sponsored images is not disturbing to users, hence I think that the advertising strategy of the service was wise and user-oriented. Imgur never officially announced its plans to increase the amount of advertising and I doubt they will in the future. Why? Because Imgur ‘is an image hosting service that doesn’t suck’.
 Crumlish, Christian, and Erin Malone. Designing social interfaces: Principles, patterns, and practices for improving the user experience. Yahoo Press, 2009.
 O’reilly, Tim. “What is Web 2.0: Design patterns and business models for the next generation of software.” Communications & strategies 1 (2007): 17.