Am I watching an online community die?

A

I have been on Imgur (pronounced imager) since 12.13. I can’t remember exactly why I decided to spend time there but I immediately loved it. Visually, it somewhat resembles Pinterest. The primary difference is that it’s filled with user-generated images, gifs, etc instead of professionally taken photos. It was created as the image hosting server for Reddit and a detailed history can be found here. In many ways it is just like Reddit, sharing much of the same content, only it’s much more visual. (The Reddit interface can be likened to a really crappy spreadsheet. Seriously. It sucks.) People upvote or downvote content, and there are ways to filter content based on tags, meta filters, most popular/user submitted (usersub) and popular, newest first and rising. Obviously with voting, people earn points and there is are ranges/titles to show how active/popular specific users are.

When I joined, what struck me was how real the community was. Members exchange Christmas gifts, help distribute signatures for petitions and attend Camp Imgur. They share very personal bits of their lives and reach out for help when they need it. (Jobs, advice and photoshopping skills.)

Then . . . about 4 months ago, I started to notice that I was seeing a lot more women in bikinis (as opposed to men). Now, let me just go on record as saying that I’m not offended by women in bikinis. ;)  The reason it was surprising is that Imgur isn’t theChive. It’s a place where snarky geeks share cool things. (Some of my favorites at the very bottom of this post. There are literally too many to share them all.)

Then a couple months ago, there was a war. Affectionately known as the NSFW war. (If you don’t know what NSFW means you may not be old enough to look at women in bikinis.) Imgur changed their terms such that people weren’t allowed put NSFW links in comments. (In general, things that are definitely NSFW are removed from usersub the second they get posted.) But this was a new level of censorship that was less than appreciated by the community. To the point that @sarah, the Director of Community on Imgur, received death threats and of course, once the policy was instituted the comment sections were filled with NSFW links. (The Digg revolt back in the day, proved once and for all that businesses DO NOT own the community.)

Bikinis + NSFW war was making me question the long-term viability of Imgur. Don’t they realize that the goal of monetizing the business puts the entire model at risk? The answer is: yes they do. But they have to do something to make money. Something other than promoted posts. Check out the traffic report below. They’ve gone from 10 million unique visitors to 25 million in one year! (Seeing the over capacity page is very common.)

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 1.27.00 PM

This indicates two things. They have a much better chance at making money and their niche user base is going to be leaving. They will leave for the same reason amateur photographers left, Instagram when they started to see youngsters showing their abs and duck faces. They’ll leave because the community – the one they are members of – is dead. Businesses like Imgur, that are founded on a niche, get to have a decision made for them at some point. Do we remain a niche community or do we get found and destroyed? (Destroyed = non-niche members join in droves and a successful business is launched.)

I have seen the evidence in numerous comment sections. People complaining about bikini shots and talking about how they’re spending less time there since the NSFW wars. Telling people to post their content on theChive. It would be sad to see Imgur go but I’m sure that when they took on a $40 million investment back in 4.14, it wasn’t to see the niche deepened. It was to see mass adoption.

I’m curious to see what happens and time will tell.

Note: Be careful with usersub. It is a representation of humanity at its most raw. It’s not as bad as some of 4chan, but don’t be shocked if you’re shocked by what you see. And now for a few of my favorite Imgur posts!

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This gentleman spent a year hiking/back packing across China. The left side is the day he started and the right side is the last day

A mother and her 3 year-old daughter, who were attacked with acid by their husband/father

This is 1 of only 7 Northern White Rhinos left in existence. (now down to 4)

A high school robotics team used a 3D printer to build a functional robotic hand they then gave to a 4-year-old born without fingers. “I’m going to paint the nails pink,” she said

By Michael Myers

I'm an Associate Teaching Professor of Digital Marketing at the Daniels College of Business, University of Denver. I also consult with startups and established brands. I'm currently interested in artificial intelligence, cognitive neuroscience and culture. I am married to an amazing woman and have two incredible children. I was raised in Colorado and spend my free time with family, cycling, snowboarding and going to the Pacific Ocean to SCUBA dive + surf. I'm passionate about architecture, design, street art, photography and tattooing.

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