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How Imgur avoids the ugliness of social media

CEO Alan Schaaf explains on the latest episode of Recode Decode.

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Imgur CEO Alan Schaaf
Imgur CEO Alan Schaaf
Diarmuid Greene / Web Summit via Getty Images

On the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Imgur CEO Alan Schaaf explained how the image-sharing site is trying to be a “beacon of hope to attract the people that are sick of social media’s toxicity.”

Part of the solution, he told Recode’s Kara Swisher, is that Imgur doesn’t subscribe to free speech absolutism: Its moderators believe some things don’t belong on the site’s public forums, and so the offending content gets removed without much deliberation. But the site also differs from most other social media platforms in that it’s not trying to create an Imgur “community.”

“Everybody’s trying to connect with everybody and everybody already is connecting with everybody,” Schaaf said. “It’s sort of the basic expectations now of the internet is that you can go on, you can connect with people. Imgur is not for connection, it is for disconnection.”

“I don’t go onto Imgur to see what all my friends are posting,” he added. “I go on there to laugh and to enjoy these moments that I have and I get kind of sucked into this whole other world of content and people that I am not seeing anywhere else.”

You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Overcast.

Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Alan.

Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair is Alan Schaaf, the founder and CEO of Imgur, which is spelled I-M-G-U-R. He started the company almost 10 years ago and it has turned into sort of a hangout where people share images, memes and GIFs. It’s one of my favorite sites that people don’t really know about as well but it’s a really important and powerful site on the internet. It’s a really interesting company. Alan, welcome to Recode Decode.

Alan Schaaf: Thank you, Kara, it’s a pleasure to be here.

I have wanted to have you here for a while, because I think you guys fly way under the radar in a lot of ways. And yet not. But everyone who knows, knows about you guys.

I think that’s probably a fair characterization. We are in the top 20 websites in the U.S. in terms of traffic. However, somehow, I hear that a lot, we somehow fly under the radar.

You do. You perform a lot of really interesting things, given most people think of “photo search is Google” and everywhere else. Why don’t you talk a little bit about how the company started and how you got to it? I think a lot of entrepreneurs want to hear sort of the entrepreneur’s journey. How did you start? Give me your 50-second bio, not 50 seconds but many-minute bio.

Yeah, I got it. I grew up in a small town in Ohio. Got my first computer when I was in fifth grade and ever since then, I’ve just been completely addicted to it.

Which one was it?

It was a Toshiba laptop.

Oh, nice.

I just absolutely loved, fell into it, learned everything I could about it, immediately became the computer guy in my family and all my friends. In high school, I actually started my first company which I believe was called Schaaf’s Networking and Administrative Solutions. Some acronym. What it was essentially was was a Geek Squad competitor where I went around to people’s homes and fixed their computers.

What did you charge?

It was hourly, super cheap though. I think it was $15 an hour, which was fantastic, because in Ohio at the time minimum wage was $7 or $7.50, so I was making some money back then. I absolutely kind of loved that job but quickly realized that I wasn’t quite learning as much just fixing people’s computers, and back then it was all Windows.

Just computers and it was all the same six things.

You reformat it and the viruses are gone. Then I quickly got into software and by the time I had graduated high school I was doing professional web development for a number of different clients. Then I went to Ohio University, studying computer science. Through my web development, I realized that I’d already learned a lot of computer science on my own. And I realized that it wasn’t quite as challenging as I thought.

The school part.

Exactly, the computer science program.

So you did the dropout thing.

No, I did not drop out. I did not do the dropout thing.

Oh you didn’t drop out, oh, all right. You thought about it.

I absolutely thought about it. But the thing is, my mom, single mother trying very hard to put me through college, I really wanted to finish. In order to learn I kept on doing personal projects. One of those personal projects that I launched was Imgur, and that’s how it started.

Tell me about the thinking of it. What were you thinking? The year was?

The year was 2009.

Okay, so later. Later. There was a lot of stuff going on already on the internet there’s already been ...

Yeah, absolutely. I realized ... Well, most of my personal projects, I would always start them out of personal frustration.

Give me one that you didn’t take to something else.

Most of them, all of them I didn’t take to something else.

Give me another example, besides Imgur.

A World of Warcraft bot where it would run me around in the game and I would get points in the World of Warcraft battlegrounds.

OK. You cheated at World of Warcraft.

Absolutely. And I got punished for that, actually. I got all my items taken away by the GM.

But anyway, most of those were my ... things like that were personal projects because it’s my problem that I have to go to class and I have a life and I can’t just sit on World of Warcraft and get all these items. Instead I’m going to build my own solution to that.

Imgur was actually quite similar to that in that my own personal frustration was, I thought it was way too difficult and annoying, really, to quickly share an image with my friend. Everything that existed back then, it was all for photos and photo storage. But I really thought that images were different.

There was Flickr, there was ...

There was Flickr, Picasa ...

Explain it, what the storages were. Picasa, which Google bought.

Flickr and Picasa were the biggest ones.

And Yahoo bought Flickr.

There’s also Photobucket.

Photobucket, what happened to them? Where did they go?

I believe they’re still around.

They’re still around. News Corp bought them for a second, right?

Yeah, I believe that’s true.

There was one that the guy started, what’s his name, the guy who founded Uber, too? He had ...


Not Kalanick, the other guy, I don’t even care what his name is. Anyway, he had another one. They sold them to News Corp at one point.

The same guy that did Stumbleupon?

Yes, Stumbleupon, that was another one. Anyway, he had another one too. There were a lot of them around. What was different from what you were trying to do?

I thought that images and not photos, that images required different functionality than the Flickrs and the Picasas of the world. Those products were always based around high-quality photos. Photos are memories. You go to a wedding and you take a thousand pictures and you want to capture these moments and then they kind of sit there and you want to have them on hand for ...


… archival purposes. I didn’t want that at all. I wanted to quickly share a meme or a gif or a logo or something with my friend.

That’s a function, that’s what people were doing. And so?

And so I built Imgur to scratch that itch. The features that I built into that were more around speed, performance, quick drag-and-drop. As soon as you do that you get a link back that you can then share. That’s what I wanted through the internet to have and I kind of built that for my own use case. I launched it, and unlike all of my other personal projects at that time ...

Nobody would’ve bought for World of Warcraft.

People may have wanted that but ...

Maybe they did, yeah, but it doesn’t help.

I think it’s illegal, actually, to sell something like that.

People really started to use it and it really caught on. It’s still just a personal project, I think I was a sophomore at the time. When I graduated I was so passionate about Imgur and loved Imgur so much and what it was doing, it was already affecting millions of people around the world, just as a project. I wanted to go all in on it. I wanted to essentially dominate the internet and have Imgur be ubiquitous throughout it.

I met my business partner Matt Strader, who became Imgur’s first COO and he really helped me flesh out the business side about how can we take this personal project and get it into ... really create a business out of it that can be self-sustaining. Ohio was great and it feels like people in Ohio really want you to succeed, but after a while I felt like I outgrew Ohio. Especially my ambitions outgrew Ohio.

Ohio is not known as a font of digital development ...

It’s not, but Silicon Valley is. Back in Ohio, Silicon Valley feels like this mythical, fairy-tale land that I never thought I would actually be there, but all these great people, these great companies, are there. I wanted to be one of those great companies.

Right, here in Silicon Valley.

Exactly. Matt and I moved out here to eventually grow it into a big business. We ended up running a profitable bootstrap business for five years until I met a guy ...

Explain your business plan when you started. A lot of these companies didn’t at all and there’s a lot of issues around copyright and all kinds of things. We’ll get into that in a minute because I would love to know where photos and imagery is right now. At the same time, just to keep in mind, Google is going heavy into photos. They’re doing, again, archival, a lot of them archival, but also photo search, photo finding, things like that. There’s a lot of companies that are doing all kinds of GIFs and memes, like a lot. There’s a lot of them out there. Your concept was this easy drag-and-drop kind of thing within other services, too. Explain what you did, how you looked into this.

Back in 2009, Twitter didn’t even have their own image-hosting service. In fact, I think TwitPic existed, and so images weren’t really a native thing of the internet back then and they didn’t have it integrated as it is today. The internet needed a hub of images, or a place that you could post your image and then take it elsewhere. You could put it on Twitter, you could put it on Facebook, put it on Reddit.

That’s what Imgur became. We ended up having this huge network of images being spread out all over the internet. Matt and I started thinking, “Why can’t people go to Imgur directly to see Imgur images? Why do you have to go to Facebook and see Imgur images there? Why do you have to go to Twitter?” So over time we built out destination and a community around image-sharing, around self-expression through images. Now it’s this visual storytelling platform that, it’s actually, we call it a “community-powered entertainment destination.”

Oh, wow.

You mentioned that there’s a lot of companies doing image search and we are really not that. We are a destination for entertainment through images.

Through images. But initially you were that, an image search that people would use your images and then put them on Twitter.

It was more hosting.

It was more hosting.

More of a hosting utility.

You’re five years [in], making money from ... from?

From advertising.

Advertising. You were also much in demand to be bought from ... I recall. I remember calling you or Yahoo, or wherever.

I remember that as well. That’s an interesting story.

Well, please tell it.

Yeah, we had a hosting agreement with Yahoo, for Yahoo Fantasy Sports. We actually hosted their images. I actually don’t know the whole extent of the story but maybe some interest came out of that or maybe their corp dev department got wind that they were the hosting people for fantasy sports. You called up Matt and you’re like, “What’s going on here? Does Yahoo wanna buy you?” And we were like, “What? Yahoo wants to buy us? I thought we were doing this hosting deal.”

Everybody was talking about you for one minute there. They may still have been, they were interested in how you guys were manipulating photos. You know how we were doing it and they had no expertise, which was shocking to me. I remember thinking, “Why don’t they just build over this guy?” Like that kind of thing. Which was fascinating.

Also Yahoo owned Flickr so what was going through my head is, “Why doesn’t Fantasy Sports just use Flickr to host their images?”

I don’t know. I can’t answer your questions about why Yahoo did what they did.

But Imgur worked great for that.

You wanted to keep independent. You were competing with bigger companies, right? Or do you not think that, that it was not ...

I didn’t quite think that. I just wanted to grow a really big business. I thought in order to do that ... Well, then I thought in order to do that we needed more money. This is also now in around 2014 or 2013-2014, when the world is clearly moving mobile. I wanted Imgur to be the next big destination for ...

Mobile imaging.

Yeah, on a phone. Really, when you think about it, Imgur is absolutely perfect on your phone because it’s just entertainment. It’s quick, bite-sized moments, this instant gratification that you get through images. It works really well on your phone, but we didn’t have an app. We had, I think, 12 people at the time.

This was 2013, you didn’t have it?

Yep, this was 2013. We were late to the mobile game. That’s why we decided to raise money from Andreessen Horowitz. Out of all that Yahoo stuff, we actually met a guy names Johnny Greenglass who helped us put together the materials to raise 40 million dollars from Andreessen Horowitz.

After that, we start building up the team. We started building up an iOS team, an Android team, the bigger back-end team for the APIs. Then always with different teams, you need different GA functions, you need HR, you need finance. After a while, you look back and it’s a pretty big business, you need a lot of people to support that.

Raising this money, how much have you raised total?

40. We only did one round.

Just from them. Only did one round because you were making money already. What was your hope to do that, was it just use this money to build that out, right? Correct?

Yeah, what we did with that money was we hired people.

You hired people.

We went from 12 to, in a year, I think it was around 45. We’re about 70 now. Turns out that’s what it took to grow up this property.

What I really am fascinated by your company is that every company like yours gets bought, gets taken up, or gets either bought or run over essentially. I want to talk about where, first, where photos are going and imagery is going and how it moves. Then, where you think the new trends are going towards it.

We’re here with Alan Schaaaaaf, the founder and CEO of Imgur. I’m sorry, I’m making fun of your name. It’s an old startup, I don’t know how else to put it. It’s like a really old startup and you guys have raised a bunch of money. I wanna talk about what it’s like to be a startup in this environment first and then where photos are going. I’m really, not photos but imagery I guess, is that how you look at it? Imagery or GIFs or memes?

Yeah, I also think of it as self-expression.

Explain that.

It turns out that people can express themselves better with an animated GIF or with an image than they can through almost any other means. I could show you a GIF of ...

You say “jiff” and not “giff,” right?

I say “jiff” and don’t get me started.

Why do you say “jiff”?

I’m a founder and the founder of the GIF format calls it “jiff.” I believe that he gets founder preference. It’s his acronym, it’s his name. If he says “jiff,” I say “jiff.”

There used to be a peanut butter, it may still be around, that was Jif, and it was a J on the Jif, right? It was a J on the Jif. That’s why it looks like GIF. I’ll call it “jiff” because I call it “giff” now. I will switch to “jiff” if the founder did.

I converted you, that’s awesome.

Yes, you did. I can’t even say it, “jiff”...

It’s completely awesome.

I can’t even say it, GIFs, go ahead, sorry, it means self-expression, good?

Yes. It’s a fantastic means of self-expression, you immediately see this GIF of a man, he’s got a sad face and he’s standing in the rain. You can like teleport yourself into his shoes and know exactly what the sort of expression is and in order to get that same feeling through just texts, like, you got to type a lot, but it’s a lot easier to just quickly share a GIF with somebody.

Talk about the trends in that area because there’s been, obviously everyone says the whole Internet is visual now, everything is visual in the Internet. Tell me about the different people that are doing this, Instagram for example.

Yeah. Instagram is very visual, you’re absolutely right, that’s what they kind of exist for, right? Imgur is very different from that in that it is a community of people, that you don’t know, that are sharing these moments of their lives that are these funny jokes that they have.

Instagram, however, is all of your friends or celebrities or the notable people in the industry and I find it quite fascinating, and it honestly, it’s a little unfortunate in the way that these platforms have sort of trended in the way that they’re shaping the internet.

Explain that, I agree with you.

When you go onto Instagram, you’ll likely see your friend, and maybe he or she is on the beach in Hawaii and that’s why he or she posted that picture, is because it makes them look very good. “Here I am in Hawaii, I got a six pack and I’m surfing,” but you, however, you’ve seen this and you might be on your couch and you just will never feel quite as good as you think that person looks.

It’s performative. Right, it’s performative.

Yes. In reality, whether you know it or not, when you post on Instagram you’re actually curating your own personal brand. You are sharing the highlight moments of your life and in order to make your life look quite good. But then on the receiving end, the people that are looking at it, it makes them feel just a little bit worse about their life because they don’t quite measure up.

You know what I recently did on Instagram? I was publishing and posting pictures of horrible things in San Francisco, it disturbed everybody. It was all unfortunate pictures, like it was a bag of urine in my yard and this is, yeah.

in San Francisco, we’ve all seen that.

That bag, of course, yeah. That’s why I could take so many photos of them. But it was really, I was trying to make a point that I was showing ugly things and it disturbed the entire ... It was as if I was kicking everybody in the teeth, which I did on purpose, like I was trying to bother people and it was interesting, you’re absolutely right. It’s a medium, my son calls it a “museum,” like people are putting up pretty pictures of themselves in the museum, and it’s not meant to make you feel good. It’s meant to make you feel bad, it doesn’t mean to but it does, I guess. Is that right?

Yes. You’re exactly right. It doesn’t mean to, but it does. And it’s just little, little by little, you might see that picture of Hawaii but then you keep on scrolling and you see more things, see more things, see more things, and after 15 minutes, or however long it is, you put your phone down and finally like, wow, I actually don’t actually feel that good. I’m not sure if that was right, the best type of experience, but it’s very addicting. And so you keep on coming back to it.

Imgur, however, is extremely different because we don’t have the friends dynamic, it’s not about looking good, it is about just sharing something of value, whether it’s funny or whether it’s an authentic story. Our vision is to lift the world’s spirits for a few moments every day. The entire purpose of the company is to solve that problem that I believe these other social giants are creating. These very addictive products that make you feel worse at the end of the day; what we’re trying to make is a product that makes you feel better and that is why we exist.

Wait, I remember there was, I want to go to an opposite direction. LOLcat. Now, that was a big deal for a while. That was a lot of imagery like sharing ...

Yeah, that was one of the original memes.

That’s the original memes, and of course they then had a site, what was the name of his site?

Cheezburger? Ben Huh and the Cheezburger network.

Cheezburger, right? Yeah. Talk about that on the opposite end, because that was sort of in that genre too, is putting up funny pictures sharing funny pictures, which didn’t thrive. Correct? That didn’t, still around but ...

I believe eventually they sold.

They keep selling.

Yeah. Okay. Imgur is a little bit different in that it’s not just sort of the one meme, it’s not just the one gif.

They tried to move off just the cat. Tried to move off the cat. They moved to squirrels.

Yeah, they had a network of blogs, there was FAIL Blog, which was gifs of people failing. Imgur, however, because of the platform, you create a post and a post can consist of one or multiple images, GIFs, videos with sound, and it really lets you create a story so it has a little bit more depth, a little bit more community, a little bit more discussion than just the bare image of the cat and the cheeseburger.

Right. Talk about that idea of what entertainment is then, because you can either go to an Instagram or a Facebook and get sucked into a time suck that you just watch other people’s lives go by. How do you look ... you are entertainment, right? Is that ... you are, you are.

Yeah. We do view Imgur as a community-powered entertainment destination because the internet at large is creating these fun posts for people to see. And it’s very much unlike a traditional publisher platform that will have 1,000 editors, maybe they’ll scour the internet for the best images and I’ll put them together in a listicle. We don’t need that…


Oh yes. Yeah, exactly. We, however, have a large community of users putting together this content. Out of that it becomes much more authentic because they’re real people, real stories, they’re not put together for the purpose of clickbait headlines, and so it has this very authentic, natural feel to it.

Talk about some of the memes that take off, for example, GIFs.

There’re there’s so many.

What’s your favorite?

I think one of my favorites now, one of my all-time favorites I think would be Scumbag Steve.

Okay. Explain.

Are you aware of …?

I’m not aware of Scumbag Steve. Incredibly.

He’s super famous, I’ve met the Scumbag Steve on a number of occasions and … I think his name is actually Blake Boston. It’s a picture of Steve and he’s wearing this hat and this like crazy kind of coat and you can put text over top of it such as, like, “Borrows your lighter, never gives it back.” And I just believe that’s a perfect, relatable instances that was all ...

We know Scumbag Steve.

We all sort of know Scumbag Steve, he’s not really a real person, he’s a persona. He’s this created character based of our everyday interactions with other people, but it makes us all feel like we relate to him somehow. We all have these little moments that we can create our own meme with that character and they’re always sort of funny.

How did that do? How well did that do?

It became one of the most popular memes on the internet. It’s a little dated now, I think.

Like the dancing baby, remember that?

Yeah, that’s really dated.

Don’t say I’m old. You can just call me old, Alan.

But I think even like Blake Boston got someone to manage him and his, these memes... Same with Success Kid, are you aware of that meme?

No, I don’t. My kids are ...

Oh, man! You got to get on the internet.

I’m on the internet but my children do the memes. I do money-earning so they could buy the phones to do the memes, but go ahead.

There’s another meme, it’s called Success Kid, and the story of Success Kid is actually that, it’s this maybe 3- or 4-year-old boy who went to the beach and he ate some sand, and he’s got his fist up kind of near his mouth where he had actually just in real life just eaten some sand. But he’s got this like, “Heck yeah,” look on. I’m like, it’s like, “Yes, I did it.”

Oh, I know him!

That’s another thing is everyone can relate to that expression that he has. And Success Kid actually, his family went on to license out the real Success Kid. same with Grumpy Cat.

Did you make Grumpy Cat? Everybody made Grumpy Cat.

Yeah, everybody made Grumpy Cat, right, exactly. Same kind of story.

Yeah, they did. They had him around, they brought him to San Francisco and I declined to go see.

They actually tour Grumpy Cat around.

Yeah, I declined to go visit Grumpy Cat, I passed on that journalistic ...

I’ve seen Grumpy Cat. It’s a magical experience.

I understand, but I passed on that journalistic moment, I didn’t want to win a Pulitzer that year, I just decided not to see... They’re like, “Come and do an interview with him!” I’m like, “I’m not doing an interview with a cat!”

What’s interesting about these memes is they’re kind of like they reflect a kind of thing that humanity has, is inside jokes or things.

My very relatable moments that everybody can connect to and it just expresses it so well in an image.

Right? Where does it go from here? Because right now, in the next section I want to talk about where the internet is going and a big sense is that things have become so toxic and so ugly and stuff like that. I want to talk about it in a minute, but what were the things going with these memes and these, oh my God, I can’t, I’ve got to say it, “jiffs,” okay. These GIFs, I got to totally change my point of view. Where does it go with these folks, these viral photos? What’s the trends in its happening?

They will continue to get more and more popular, there’s absolutely just ubiquitous. They will be integrated into everything, and we see that now.

Such as?

We see that Google just acquired Tenor, not too long ago, and now GIFs are built into the android keyboard, you can search ...

They are. They’re in Apple, too. Is Imgur in the phone?

They are becoming into everything and they will continue that trend.

Right. Then so people can use them as expressions and in other parts of the world, Asia for example, it’s much heavier usage of those. Correct?

Yeah. And in Asia they are very big on the emoji, and I kind of think that the GIF is sort of the western emoji. Of course, we have emojis, but just bring on this additional layer of self-expression, maybe just the typical emoji can bring.

Can you imagine them completely replacing texts at any point or not?

I think they will always sort of supplement texts, to a certain degree. Although I have had entire conversations with friends only using GIFs.


And you can get a lot out of it, it’s just super fun. It’s a really fun way to express yourself.

Does it ever turn ... In the next section, I do you want to talk about how things have turned really ugly in social media, but does it ever turn badly in these? It can, right?

I haven’t seen GIF usage turn too ugly, but the internet is a reflection of humanity, to a certain degree and everybody is on the internet and you may have these small, vocal minorities of people on the internet that want to express their hatred or something like that.

Well, they took Pepe the Frog, right?

Exactly, that’s a really good example of an actual racist meme.

That was that big on your … that was on Reddit, more than anything.

No, we didn’t see Pepe the Frog on Imgur at all. However, we would just outright ban that content, racist memes and texts and otherwise, they do not belong on Imgur. If we want to lift the worlds’ spirits for a few moments every day, then we can’t allow hate speech or harassment. And Pepe the Frog is just hateful content.

It wasn’t. The original guy that wasn’t … the guy who created Pepe the Frog.

Right, but it turned into something ugly and now it’s known for that sort of ugly thing. When it’s used now it is almost always used within that ugly context.

Right, absolutely. Right now social media is kind of in an ugly period. There’s this techlash going on, and you’re part of social media, right? Do you think of yourself as that, or not?

Yeah, we’re a little bit different in that we’re primarily an entertainment community.

Right. But social media considers itself entertainment, right? Or communications, but you’re a communications medium too, like people talking to each other, too.

Yes, that is correct.

What do you think is happening now because it’s taken sort of a horrible turn, in many ways. I was at a dinner party last night and that’s all anybody was talking about is like what has happened and how they had very little control and we were talking about Pepe the Frog and how memes have had now been employed in super ugly ways.

Yeah, we do see that unfortunately on the internet, not so much on Imgur. I think it’s incredibly important that platforms, they...

Tell me about your response. What do you think your responsibility is?

I think that it’s every platform’s responsibility to control their users and to have values around the type of person ...

Which is an unusual thing for an internet person to say.

That type of like what kind of companies are these people trying to create, and ultimately, that comes down to the values that the company has and the values that it imposes on its users and then how it then enforces and shapes the behavior of that platform to make sure that it actually lines up to those values. The reason why we don’t see a lot of Pepe the Frogs on Imgur is because it’s just not allowed. It does not line up to values of open and transparency and bringing value to users and respect for users. It just doesn’t line up for those. We just remove that content. One key differentiator for Imgur...

But you’ve got billions of photos coming through. The reason I want you to talk about this is because what you get from the Facebooks and the Twitter is its like, “This is just too much to deal with it.” I’m like, “The guys at Imgur seems to clean it up rather quickly.”

We do, and you know what? That’s a poor excuse, we have a lot of stuff coming in as well.

Explain to the people why? Because I literally spent all my time saying, “I know you can do this.”

I know they can because I’m doing that right now.

How many billions of images go across your site? Billions, right? Billions and billions and billions.

We have, yeah. We have a catalog that is in the ... probably close to 10 billion images at this point and millions come in per day. Only so many of those millions per day actually get shared publicly to the community, and that’s what we actively moderate.

We have these values and these rules to enforce the type of behavior that we want people to exhibit on Imgur and that’s ... I feel like we take that responsibility and we’re accountable to how our users are behaving within our community, at least I like to think so. And so, we have a huge team of moderators located all around the world in various time zones.

Human moderators?

Human moderators. So that’s a crazy interesting point in that we have a huge, a big system of layers and layers of content enforcement and moderation. It goes from algorithms ...

You are using AI and algorithms.

Exactly, yeah, exactly, automatic nudity detection to just the way that the product is set up from the beginning and that it has the upvote and the downvote, then the community norms, the community rules.

But however these pieces of content, however they bubble up, whether it’s automatically or whether a user is reporting it to us, we always have a human look at it and take it down. And that’s just how we enforce our community to behave the way that we want, is that if we see anybody trying to exhibit harassment or anybody posting personal information or anybody spamming within ... it takes an average of three minutes and also I think that’s too long.

That’s a start, I love that you are saying this, thank you.

But it takes an average of three minutes for us to take that content down.

And what is the problem going on in social media? Because it really has created a cesspool. It’s a cesspool, I don’t know how else to put it and it’s a cesspool of their own making. Now they will argue ... I was with some Twitter people last night and they were like, “Well, you don’t think we want to get rid of this?” And I go, “No, I don’t.” They were like, “It’s not good for advertisers and we’re not making money for it.” I’m like, “Then you’re just bad at your job. I don’t know what else to say. Then you’re just incompetent.” And so why do you imagine it’s happening on these platforms?

Well, most platforms, I think, take the free speech approach, which may work for certain platforms, but what it means is that you will have these sort of pockets of little cesspools, so to speak, and you know, “Let’s contain this cesspool over here and let it not bleed out into this other cesspool. And then we’ll have this other cesspool over here ...”

On Imgur, however, it’s all one thing and there’s nowhere to hide on Imgur, so we can’t have these little mini pockets. When you submit, you’re basically submitting to everybody and everybody can see it. And so if you submit a wildly unpopular opinion that is racist or or something like that, that’s not going to reach the other racists or anything because that doesn’t exist. These sections on Imgur don’t exist and you kind of submit it to everybody.

We very much take the approach where we’re just not a free speech platform. That’s not what we’re trying to do. We are a place of positivity on the internet. We want to be a beacon of hope to attract the people that are sick of social media’s toxicity.

Right, so talk about “We’re not a free speech platform.” Because one of my things that I’m pushing — because I get like attacked when I say you cannot put these certain things on there, you have to clean up whatever you’re doing, depending on ... unless you just want to be a filthy place, essentially. And so I always say, freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequence. That if we have rules somewhere and ...

What I’m fascinated by is why they keep doing this, because it’s no good for their business eventually. It’s no good for society and obviously it’s shown to have really ill effects with the Russians, you know, using the platform on Facebook exactly as it was created. What do you think has to happen in that area? Because I do ... the reason I wanted to have you on is because you are doing it right. Like you were actually doing it right in a way that’s a good business, too.

Yeah, that’s right.

Which is ... I mean, Facebook should be your business, Facebook is your business, but they’re trying to entertain and keep people on the thing and in connection because you are about connection, community and everything. Similar things.

Yeah. Well, on the connection piece, and we’re kind of ... I think social media is going, see, everybody’s trying to connect with everybody and everybody already is connecting with everybody. It’s sort of the basic expectations now of the internet is that you can go on, you can connect with people. Imgur is not for connection, it is for disconnection.

Oh, explain that.

It is for the moments of downtime. It’s to disconnect. So I don’t go onto Imgur to see what all my friends are posting. I go on there to laugh and to enjoy these moments that I have and I get kind of sucked into this whole other world of content and people that I am not seeing anywhere else.

Almost like a video game.

It is sort of like a video game. It puts you into this flow of focus and you end up seeing and just swiping through all of this amazing content and you end up seeing these things that are funny or inspirational or uplifting they just make you laugh, make you learn something new. But whatever it is you end up seeing, you always walk away feeling better on Imgur because that’s really what it’s all about.

You know what I was thinking of ... It just flashed on Secret and Whisper, I don’t even know which one of them is still around, I don’t think they are.

Whisper is still around.

But it was at first people telling it the way it really was, but they used imagery and graphics to do that, which was interesting. It was all about feeling bad or telling bad things about people kind of thing, which is interesting. Where do you think it goes from here? Where do you imagine it goes? Because right now it feels like we’re in a really bad spot with these things.

And obviously there’s the political damage, there’s the polarization. And someone I was with last night, Nicole Wong, who’s been on this podcast, was talking about all these studies showing how polarization pushes us apart and how social media has a role in that.

But if you start to change the pillars of what you’re wanting people to do — she calls them pillars — if you take a pillar of engagement and change it to entertainment or change it to community or you change it ... she’s like, the Facebook pillars are engagement, speed and virality. And those will create fake news, that will create people being polarized, it’ll create problems. If you change them to community, commonality, things we have in common, like instead of nationally, you take away national politics today and then you talk about streets and roads and schools, people start to move together. Which I thought was really interesting. Once you change what you’re designing for, you create a better experience. Why is that not happening?

Yeah. So, well, our pillars are value, transparency and respect. And so that’s what we try to uphold for our users, that’s how we want our users to behave. And so when you post, we want you to post something of value to the community, whether that’s funny or it’s a story, but something that’s not a value is just spam.

And we also want it to be very transparent. So if you think you’re posting something of value, like, “Hey, check out this new app, this lets you do all this stuff.” But you’re actually the secret creator of that app, right? That is just not transparent and it’s disingenuous. So we would even take that down because it’s misleading.

And then also on respect, you can’t harass somebody, you can’t do hate speech, you can’t post personal information. And so I believe that these platforms need to take control of their uses and create their own values for the products of what they’re trying to do here in the world. And maybe that’s where ... we just need to bring more of that in, I think, to the internet.

And why don’t they want to do that? And why do you?

Well, I’m not sure. I can’t speak for the other platforms but I sort of imagined that by having a very super-open free speech type of thing, you want to attract everybody and that makes a ton of sense.

Growth at all costs.

But we also want to attract everybody. It’s just we’re doing a very different approach because I believe that you might end up attracting a tiny group of people that have very niche views of the world and then they’re going to share those views and it’s going to turn off regular people of the world. And so by allowing these other people in, you’re actually making a much more unfriendly experience for everybody else, and so we just want to be the friendly place, and we don’t allow the crazy niche racist views, essentially.

So what’s going to win?

What’s going to win in terms of ...?

Users. What’s going to happen? I mean, most people think it’ll be some sort of regulation. Obviously Europe has been really strongly starting to pull back content and make them, force them ... There’s the section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which they’re thinking of just changing and removing broad immunity so that they have to actually do something about it. Where do you think it’s going? How do you pull it back?

Because your vision of the internet was the original vision of the internet as I recall it back in the day when the baby was — it was the dancing friggin baby. It was so great. That baby was the best thing ever. Let me just say, when you saw that, when you did not see ever have a meme, this was the first meme, it was the most delightful thing you ever want to see. It was like, “what?” It’s sort of like ... I remember when my kid tried ice cream for the first time, he was like, “whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” like you could see it in his face. And that was what it felt like at the time and now it makes 400,000,000 million memes later.

That’s the original vision for the internet and I absolutely want to bring that back. So I can tell you where I would like it to go. See, the internet ... this challenge here, especially with the manipulation that we see from Russia ...

They’re very good at memes by the way.

They are absolutely fantastic.

Do they get on your platform?

Some. So my point is that they are absolutely fantastic and they are on every platform. If there is a user-generated platform that exists, it is actively being manipulated right now. And so I believe that ... where I would like to go is, I think especially a lot of the bigger companies, they have to have some responsibility and have to have a vision for what they want to create on the internet. And everybody is also trying to tackle it independently for their platform and so Facebook has their own efforts on how to deal with it, Twitter has their own efforts, we have our own efforts ...


Yeah, Reddit has their own efforts. We’re all spending money on the exact same problem and some of us are better at it than others due to the amount of resources that we have in a particular domain expertise of each company. But then there’s one company that I think is doing something that I would like to see more of and that company is called Thorn.

Okay, this is Ashton Kutcher’s and Demi Moore. It used to be called DNA or something like that.

Yeah. Well, we work with them.

Explain Thorn, because Thorn is an amazing company.

I love it. It is an absolutely amazing company and we need to see more of this. But what they’re trying to do is create a technology and a shared database around flagging illegal content such as child pornography on the internet.

That’s right, they’ve worked with all the big search ...

Exactly. So here you have a startup that’s sole purpose is to make the internet a better place. And in doing so, they need to work with all the different companies, basically get integrated into Facebook, into Imgur, where we have them integrated. And so when a user tries to upload something on Facebook, for example, that would actually affect our database and now they can’t upload it to Imgur and they wouldn’t be able to upload it to Twitter. So it just doesn’t affect one platform, it’s basically banned from all of them.

Why can’t we see more of that? That exists now for child pornography, but why can’t there be some sort of shared technology for hate, for manipulation? How come no company is working on it from that perspective?

Because they don’t want to identify what hate is, even if you know it when you see it, like, you know, the expression about pornography? You know it when you see it. And I take issue with that and they say, “You don’t.” There is a difference between criticism and criticalness, and what they do is, I think, all these hate mongers play them all and they play, they play them beautifully and they just sit there and take advantage, like Alex Jones. To me, that was ... One point during the Alex Jones thing and you don’t have that on yours. That’s not an issue. You have to deal with it, but inevitably you’re going to take him down. I don’t know why you keep resisting what you’re going to end up doing because you will understand he’s playing you, which I think all these vicious memes do.

Yeah. That’s an interesting point that they will understand that they are playing you. And I believe that’s what they do, sometimes people will make it their full-time job. It’s like their mission in life to play these companies and they’ll figure it out ways around the different safeguards ...

Whether its Google with the search ... but if you think about it, this discussion of it was really interesting because Google search is pretty clean, right? It really is.

They’re actually doing a fantastic job.

It really is. You get what you looked for, pretty much. And they have had so many people try to game that system and game the distribution and they lose for a minute and then they win again. So to me, if they can do that, anyone can do anything, that kind of thing.

Anyway, Alan, this is great talking to you. This is a really interesting thing. What is your prediction for the next thing ... VR and stuff? Are you going to be able to participate in that?

I certainly hope so. I want Imgur content to spread everywhere. I want to be on VR, I want to be on TV, I want you to walk into a bar in San Francisco and have our fun GIFs right there playing on the TV. I want to spread positivity out on the internet. And then, like you were saying, I want to bring the internet back to its original purpose where the dancing baby basically delighted the entire world. I want to delight the entire world with Imgur.

And then there was another one. What was the second one after dancing baby? There was a second one. What was it? It was a crying someone? Or a love? A kiss? A hugging?

There was David at the dentist?

No, there was a hugging one. Oh my God, I should go back because there was another one right after dancing baby that was wonderful and they toured too. It was something to do with kissing or hugging or something like that but it was lovely. It was lovely time ... we sound like old people remembering that.

Anyway, Alan, it was great talking to you. I love Imgur, I think it’s a wonderful company. Thanks for coming on the show.

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