The Imgur apocalypse will destroy much of the internet

If you want to test a free platform’s ability to protect content over the long term, here’s a fun test: Upload an image, post it somewhere, then wait a decade to see if it stays.

Chances are, it won’t.

That’s why, perhaps, it’s not entirely surprising to learn about it Imgura popular photo upload service that has been informally tied to Reddit since its founding in 2009, will be removing two types of content from its platform starting next month: explicit or pornographic images, and anonymously uploaded images, the latter with a tip on unused images, according to the company. Though technically banned from Imgur for years through its community rules, adult content hasn’t been actively removed (and it’s incredibly popular). Until now.

“We understand that these changes could be disruptive for Imgurians who have used Imgur to store their images and artwork,” the company declared in terms of service update announcing these changes. “These changes are an important step in Imgur’s ongoing efforts to remain a safe and fun space on the Internet.”

The move will also be disastrous for the continuity of the Internet. Like Photobucket before it, Imgur has been used extensively to host millions of photos that are linked, embedded, or used elsewhere, and many of those photos have been uploaded by people who haven’t bothered to sign up for the accounts. Imgur is especially popular as a host for Reddit, which means the content of those old posts could suddenly disappear from the internet. The move will likely also stop embeds in various forum posts and blog posts across the internet, creating an unfortunate form of link rot.

(The Archive Team, generally a harbinger of site closures, is working on backup this material, second an ad on Reddit.)

That Imgur, a meme-friendly platform that’s been around for nearly 15 years and used extensively on Reddit, is making this move isn’t entirely a surprise. Several major image hosting platforms have done essentially the same thing over the past decade.

Perhaps the best-known example of this type of image gating is Photobucket, which in 2017 announced plans charge expensive annual subscription fees, especially for those who have used the site as an external image host. (Because the platform was designed to host images on forums, it created a major digital disruption in its wake.) The company eventually had a change of heart about removals and high prices, but not before destroying much of its digital goodwill.

Particularly at risk of disappearing are sites that embark on a symbiotic relationship with a larger host, with platforms like TwitPic and yFrog disappearing altogether as they gradually find themselves being replaced by their core service. (In the case of TwitPic, Twitter almost bought it, just to step back in the midst of a trademark dispute.)

While more robust than those services, Imgur generally falls into this category, especially since it’s now possible to host images on Reddit without using a service like Imgur. When that change happened in 2016, the number of Imgur submissions to Reddit it dropped by a quarter virtually overnightaccording to a data analysis.

Because image hosts inherently face risks

A number of factors can lead to decisions that limit image uploads. For example, high bandwidth is a major pressure point for image hosts, leading to increased reliance on advertising and business decisions that gradually favor paid users. A change in ownership can shift priorities in unexpected directions, leading to business decisions that go against the platforms’ original mission.

And then there’s the risk of explicit material, something that has plagued a variety of platforms, including Imgur. Legal realities, such as copyright removal and CSAM image risk, are an ongoing challenge for image hosts, but more acute are pressures from payment processors, advertisers and distribution partners to restrict access to questionable material.

Concern for brand safety has been perhaps the most disruptive for communities with an NSFW element. Tumblr disrupted its user base by blocking adult content in 2018, along with a whole host of funny false positiveslargely due to aggressive pushback by the Apple App Store, which at one point removed the social network from its service.

(For schadenfreude fans, Imgur has said it will pull the images with the help of AI-powered tools, albeit with the assistance of human moderators, so Tumblr-style false positives are very possible in the next few weeks.) weeks.)

While this situation isn’t the best to navigate, some platforms have been more successful than others. Since being acquired by SmugMug in 2018, Flickr gained a reputation for carefully removing images with the interests of the wider community in mind, which allowed the company to maintain a semblance of goodwill.

Throughout its history, Flickr has faced each of the above issues, including imposing strict limitations on free accounts and controlling explicit images. The company has removed millions of images from unpaid accounts, but aimed at maintaining goodwill while continuing to support its vast library of Creative Commons images. And while Flickr announced plans to limit explicit image uploads last year, it made room for compromises by allowing paid users to continue hosting them on the service.

And it’s possible that the problems could extend beyond image hosting as well: last year, Vimeo has started charging Patreon users significantly high rates for video hosting, as part of a larger shift to business-to-business hosting. While it come back some of these changes ultimately reflect how the company dramatically changed its approach as part of an ownership change.

Image host against corporate tides

Ultimately, image hosting platforms are subject to the same kinds of commercial pressures as anyone else, and when those pressures prove incompatible with free hosting, it leaves them potential victims at the whims of partners, governments, and even shifting interests.

Imgur, while ostensibly the same service it was in 2012 or 2015, has seen significant ownership changes in recent years, with the MediaLab AI holding acquires it in 2021 and its founder, Alan Schaaf, departing about a year ago, according to his LinkedIn page.

In a comment on RedditSchaaf has suggested that the changes went against the spirit of the company he founded, although he ultimately has no say in it, because he sold it.

“I’m not at all sad about the sale. I am sad about the decisions they are making that do not align with Imgur’s vision or values,” she wrote.

It’s possible that other services you rely on for image hosting may one day face the same fate as Imgur or PhotoBucket. For example, there is no evidence that anything could happen to Giphy GIF hosting platform, but its failure to acquire by Meta– the UK government is forcing the company out of service for competitive reasons – putting it at risk of this type of disruption in the future.

It’s enough to make you want to host yourself.

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