The Imgur Apocalypse Is Going to Break Large Parts of the Internet

It’s not just porn that’s getting deleted from Imgur. Millions of images that are embedded elsewhere will also eventually be taken down.
Image: Imgur

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

Odds are, it won’t.

Which is why, perhaps, it’s not totally surprising to learn that Imgur, a popular photo-uploading service that has been informally tied to Reddit since its 2009 founding, will remove two types of content from its platform starting next month: explicit or pornographic imagery, and images uploaded anonymously—the latter with a lean on unused images, according to the company. While technically banned from Imgur for years through its community rules, adult content hasn’t been actively removed (and is incredibly popular). Until now.


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

The move is also going to be disastrous for the continuity of the internet. Like Photobucket before it, Imgur has been widely used to host millions of photos that are linked to, embedded, or used elsewhere, and lots of these photos were uploaded by people who didn't bother to sign up for accounts. Imgur is especially popular as a host for Reddit, meaning the content of those old posts could suddenly disappear off the internet. The move will likely also break embeds in various forum posts and blog posts all over the internet, creating an unpleasant form of link rot.

(The Archive Team, generally a harbinger of shuttering sites, is working on backing up this material, according to an announcement on Reddit.)

That Imgur, a meme-friendly platform that has been active for nearly 15 years and is most widely used on Reddit, is making this move is not totally a surprise. A number of major image-hosting platforms have done essentially the same thing in the past decade.

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


Especially at risk of disappearing are sites that take on a symbiotic relationship with a larger host, with platforms such as TwitPic and yFrog disappearing entirely because they gradually found themselves replaced by their parent service. (In the case of TwitPic, Twitter nearly acquired it, only to back out amid a trademark dispute.)

While more resilient than those services, Imgur generally fits this category, especially as 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 fell by a quarter basically overnight, according to one data analysis.

Why Image Hosts Inherently Face Risks

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

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


The brand-safety concern has perhaps been the most disruptive for communities with a NSFW element. Tumblr disrupted its own user base by blocking adult content in 2018, along with a whole slew of amusing false positives, largely as a result of aggressive pushback by Apple App Store, which at one point removed the social network from its service.

(For fans of schadenfreude, Imgur has said it will pull images with the help of AI-driven tools—though with assistance from human moderators—so Tumblr-style false positives are very possible in the coming weeks.)

While this situation is not the best to navigate, some platforms have been more successful at this than others. Since being acquired by SmugMug in 2018, Flickr has gained a reputation of removing images carefully while keeping the interests of the larger community in mind, which has allowed the firm to maintain a semblance of goodwill.

Through its history, Flickr has had to navigate each of the above issues, including putting strict limitations on free accounts and reining in explicit imagery. The company removed millions of images from unpaid accounts—but strained to maintain goodwill by continuing to support its large library of Creative Commons images. And while Flickr announced plans to limit explicit image uploads last year, it created room for compromise by allowing paid users to continue hosting them on the service.


And it’s possible that issues could expand beyond image hosting, too: Last year, Vimeo began charging Patreon users dramatically high fees for video hosting, as a part of a larger shift to business-to-business hosting. While it walked back some of those changes, it ultimately reflects how the company shifted its approach dramatically as a part of an ownership change.

Image Hosts vs. Corporate Tides

Ultimately, image hosting platforms are subject to the same kinds of business pressures as everyone else—and when those pressures prove incompatible with free hosting, that makes them potential victims of the whims of partners, governments, even shifting interests.

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

In a Reddit comment, Schaaf suggested that the changes went against the spirit of the company he founded—though he ultimately has no say, because he sold it off.

“I’m not sad about selling at all. I’m sad about the decisions they’re making that aren’t aligned with Imgur’s vision or values,” he wrote.

It’s possible other services you rely on for image hosting could someday face the same fate as Imgur or PhotoBucket. For example, there’s no evidence anything might happen to the GIF-hosting platform Giphy, but its failed acquisition by Meta—the British government is forcing the company to divest the service for competitive reasons—puts it at risk of this kind of disruption in the future.

It’s enough to make you want to self-host.