Why ‘Imgur’ Wants to Be the YouTube for Images

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How did an image host that brought us Sad Keanu become one of the biggest sites on the web?

You probably saw it last month: A photo of President Obama stepping off a plane, wearing his usual suit, black shades and a big, sh*t-eating grin. He’s pointing at something or someone; we just don’t know what or who. But in typical meme fashion, the version of the photo you likely saw had bold, white letters overlaid on top of it: “Sorry it took so long for you to get my birth certificate,” it says. “I was too busy killing Osama bin Laden.”

The photo probably found your eyeballs through a website called Imgur (pronounced “imager”), a two-year old photo sharing service that’s become one of the Internet’s most magnetic timesucks – and therefore, one of its largest websites.

In the past month alone, Imgur had over 6 million photos uploaded to it, accounting for 5 billion image views while commanding a hefty 700 terabytes of bandwidth. In the U.S., it has an Alexa web rank of 43 overall, easily beating out more famous establishments like eHow, Groupon and the Wall Street Journal.

The site’s massive, if unlikely, success makes its humble beginnings all the more incredible. Imgur was created in the dorm room of then-Ohio University junior Alan Schaaf, who first intended the service for use on Reddit when he launched it in February ’09. His total start up cost? Seven dollars for the domain name (he already had hosting on his personal site).

“People would post images from sites like Photobucket and ImageShack,” he says referring to Reddit, the popular link sharing community where he operated under the username MrGrim. “The problem that people were having was that when the image reached the front page, it would receive a couple hundred thousand views, causing the image host to take it down for using too much bandwidth.”

Enter Imgur, whose original iteration stressed function over form. In other words: no tags, no titles or descriptions, and no log ins. Just a simple, user-friendly upload box for posting your pictures.

“It was just a project that I was working on outside of class,” says Schaaf. “It was never supposed to be anything big.”

With page views in the billions, though, big is an incredible understatement.

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