The Cold War Between Reddit and Imgur Has Officially Begun

"In a sense, Imgur has gotten too big for its britches, and it’s probably too risky for Reddit to continue relying on a direct competitor for image hosting."

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Jun 21 2016, 8:20pm

Image: Reddit

Neither site will say it, but a cold war between Reddit and Imgur is officially underway—a standoff that will show us whether the sites actually still need each other.

For years, Reddit and Imgur have been inseparable. In fact, Imgur was founded in 2009 by a Redditor who wanted an easy way to share photos to Reddit. It took off to the point where if you saw a photo on Reddit, it was probably hosted on Imgur. Imgur got popular off the back of Reddit's success—according to Alexa, Reddit is the ninth most popular website in the United States; Imgur is the 16th most popular site in the US (two spots above Instagram, of all things).

A few years ago, Imgur founder Alan Schaaf found that Imgurians, as they're called, were talking to each other on Imgur, creating Reddit-like comment threads independent of Reddit itself. The site also has its own front page, its own app, its own topic sections, and its own Reddit-like upvoting system.

"I would see they were stretching Imgur in different directions and doing things that weren't supported, like using @username messaging even though that wasn't supported," Schaaf recently told me. "We started small, based on what users were asking for and started building those things into the site, then we took a step back and realized why people were using the service and what they were getting out of it."

Imgurians started as Redditors, mostly, but now Imgur is undeniably its own community. Imgur showed such promise that in 2014 it scored $40 million in funding from Silicon Valley VC Andreessen Horowitz, and has spent considerable resources dedicated to building out its mobile app. If Imgurians use the Imgur app, the thinking goes, Imgur is the primary destination, not the incidental one that comes from a browse-Reddit-first mentality.

"In a sense, Imgur has gotten too big for its britches, and it's probably too risky for Reddit to continue relying on a direct competitor for image hosting"

For the last few years, Reddit has seemed content to allow Imgur to be its de-facto image host. But in late May, Reddit announced that it was beta testing its own internal image hosting platform; Tuesday, it announced that image hosting is now available on all of Reddit's safe-for-work subreddits. NSFW support is coming soon, Reddit said.

Reddit hasn't said it outright, but it's obvious that this is a move that's at least partly designed to stop sending Reddit's considerable user base to a website that is now a direct competitor. Imgur hasn't said it outright, but if Reddit's content creators are coming to Imgur first to upload the content, isn't it better to keep them on the site?

"Imgur is no longer just that simple image host it was seven years ago," Schaaf told me. "What we're trying to do is very simple. We want to give people entertaining content to enjoy—quick moments of delight for our visitors, who turn to us when they have open moments. They pick up the app and get sucked into another world to see things they can't find anywhere else."

The numbers here look scary for both Imgur and for Reddit. Data analyst Randy Olson found that more than half or Reddit's most popular posts are hosted on Imgur. That's not half of all image posts on Reddit, that's half of all popular posts, regardless of content type. In the last few years, popular Reddit posts have wondered "why do subreddits eventually transform into an Imgur aggregator after a while" and "today for the first time in my Reddit tenure, all 25 top posts on r/all were Imgur links."

Image: Randy Olson

Getting addicted to flicking through things in a spare moment sounds an awful lot like what people use Reddit for, and if most of Reddit is Imgur anyway, why bother with Reddit?

Publicly, Reddit administrators have said the launch of its self-hosted service is to provide a "seamless user experience." Reddit's founding engineer Chris Slowe told Slate last month that by self-hosting pictures, it also gives the company more leeway to remove "evil" content: "It's basically anti-spam, anti-abuse," he said. If that were truly the extent of it, though, Reddit has lots of areas where it could improve if it's trying to foster a more inclusive community—image hosting seems like a weird place to start. I don't doubt that Reddit wants more control over what's posted on the site, but the business case to reduce the site's reliance on Imgur makes more sense than the abuse/harassment/spam/copyright argument.

"Imgur has now grown into a full-fledged online community focused on image sharing, and is arguably a direct competitor to Reddit," Olson wrote in his blog post. "In a sense, Imgur has gotten too big for its britches, and it's probably too risky for Reddit to continue relying on a direct competitor for image hosting."

Olson hits the nail on the head here. Neither Imgur nor Reddit will say it (Schaaf deflected when I brought this up numerous times in our interview), but Imgur is the only site that can possibly compete with Reddit at the moment.

"Image hosting on Reddit is something that our users have requested for quite some time, and is an expected feature that brings a much more seamless experience to the platform. With hundreds of thousands of posts going up on we want Redditors to be able to upload images and have a conversation with the community, all in one place," Reddit told me in a statement. "The user experience is a main driver for these changes, but we also wanted to provide Redditors with choice—Imgur has been an integral part of Reddit's content for many years and users are still welcome to use third-party hosts, especially when uploading image albums."

In a lot of ways, Reddit's move away from Imgur mirrors what Facebook has done with its Instant Articles. If people are coming to Facebook for news, why not host the news on the site itself? If people are coming to Reddit for pictures, why not host the pictures there? Of course, Facebook's move has caused a mass panic in the news industry; it'll be interesting to see whether Reddit's image hosting service threatens Imgur's existence, or whether the site already has enough of a built-in userbase to remain successful.

There are a few questions worth considering: Do Imgurians look at themselves as Imgurians first or Redditors first? Will Redditors actually use the new Reddit upload system (during the beta test, it was pretty buggy)? Will Reddit eventually try something more aggressive, like banning Imgur links outright? Would Redditors revolt if the company tried something like that?

And most importantly, Which site needs the other more? We're about to find out.