SAN FRANCISCO — You may have never heard of the image-sharing service Imgur. But nearly every day you probably come across comical photos with witty captions that originated there.
With 130 million visiting the site each month, Imgur (which the company pronounces as "imager") is one of the Internet's most popular hangouts. People who call themselves Imgurians upload, browse, vote and comment on images and animated clips called GIFS.
Whether it's Beyonce striking an unflattering pose during a Super Bowl concert or a disappointed toddler peering through a locked gate at the zoo in Washington during last fall's partial government shutdown, the images spread like wildfire across the Internet, sparking conversation on social networks and giving rise to new fads in online popular culture.
Take the unlucky passerby who inadvertently stepped in front of the camera and photo-bombed a marriage proposal at Walt Disney World. He was dubbed In the Way Guy on Imgur and his picture is still photoshopped into countless images.
"People see these things and they think it's an Internet thing," Imgur founder Alan Schaaf said. "But these things have to start somewhere and, if it's an image, it probably started on Imgur."
And that is why Imgur has become such a force on the Internet, Altimeter Group analyst Brian Solis said. It's an Internet meme machine. Images posted on Imgur's home page typically are viewed 100,000 to 200,000 times on the first day.
"Imgur is almost the perfect medium for celebrating today's idea of Internet pithiness," Solis said.
Imgur is part of a new crop of start-ups that has captured the major shift in how people express themselves on the Internet. Sharing images has become the Web's lingua franca, transforming how people communicate with one another.
As a company, Imgur is as unconventional as the images on its service. Even amid the technology boom when investors are handing out money left and right, the tiny, 11-person company has never taken a dollar of venture capital funding — that despite being hounded by deep-pocketed investors and would-be suitors such as Yahoo Inc.
Imgur is also that rare Internet start-up that figured out early on how to cash in on its fast-growing popularity. Schaaf said his company is profitable, though he won't be specific. It runs sponsored images that flow alongside the user-generated content, and it sports splashy ads from movie studios and video game publishers. Heavy users of Imgur pay $24 a year for unlimited image storage and other premium features.
You'd never get a sense of Imgur's booming presence on the Web from visiting its unpretentious headquarters in a low-slung building in a seedy stretch of downtown San Francisco.
The elevator is so temperamental that most staffers hike up the four floors to the airy, brick-walled office. A couple of staffers who ride scooters to work brave the elevator to stow their scooters in the stairwell.
Schaaf is a skinny 26-year-old who dresses in the typical Silicon Valley uniform of hoodie and jeans. He says he created Imgur while he was a junior studying computer science at Ohio University in 2009.
Many of the staffers hail from Ohio and have a down-to-earth sensibility. But Schaaf's ambitions for Imgur are anything but understated.
"We want to be like a YouTube for viral images," Schaaf said. In other words, he wants Imgur to house all images that spread virally on the Internet in the same way Google Inc.'s massive video-sharing service is home to all viral videos.
"If there is a viral video on the Internet, you know it's on YouTube. You can search for it, find it, see the view count and then take that link and share it with whomever you want," Schaaf said. "That's what we are doing for images."
And Schaaf thinks an image will one day be worth a thousand videos. He expects Imgur to become a household name in just a couple of years.
Driving that expectation is the addictive nature of entertainment on Imgur that often comes in the form of animals that are ridiculously cute or just plain ridiculous. Millions of people have gotten a big laugh out of a bug-eyed cat being given a bath. And a Shiba Inu from Japan dubbed Doge became an Internet sensation for the dog's droll expression, eyebrows raised as he looks warily into the camera.
But of all the memes on Imgur, "banana for scale" may be one of the most famous.
In February 2012, Andy Herald, a humorist and father of three from Pasadena, came up with an infographic on the messy business of sorting kids' soiled tighty-whities.
"Skid Marks: When to Wash 'Em, When to Toss 'Em" was a huge hit on HowToBeADad.com.
So, too, was something Herald had put next to one of the diagrams of soiled underwear: An illustration of a banana with the phrase "banana added for scale."
It wasn't the first time the freelance designer had used the world's most popular fruit as a humorous way to show the relative size of an object in an infographic. But it was the first time the Internet took notice.
Soon, bananas became a new unit of measurement for Internet humor, the bright yellow fruit being posed next to all kinds of objects, people and animals in photographs. The most recent banana fad: pets.
"What the world has done with it is ridiculously amazing," said Herald whose friends surprised him with a yellow banana-shaped birthday cake last month when he turned 38. "But if I had to give credit to any community on the Internet for spreading the popularity of banana for scale, Imgur wins it."
For all its far-reaching ambition today, Imgur started out as a side project, one of many Schaaf tinkered with in his spare time as a college student.
Schaaf says it bugged him that the Internet didn't have a better image uploading tool that allowed images to go viral and be seen by millions. So he built one that gets images onto the Web quickly and provides a short link for each image to make it easy to share the image on blogs, Reddit or social networks.
For the first six months, Imgur operated from Schaaf's dorm room. A $25,000 grant from a small fund associated with the university helped defray costs. Then Schaaf began running display ads to pay for storing all those images.
By 2011 when Schaaf and the team moved the company to San Francisco, Imgur had gone from being a place that hosted images to a hangout for a passionate community of Imgurians. Imgur's users upload 1.5 million images a day and spend an average of about 10 minutes a day on the service.
Friends meet and bond on Imgur. One woman proposed to her boyfriend on the service. Another couple met on Imgur and got married.
For Matthew Stradwick, a.k.a. moonkey, the service was instantly habit-forming.
Stradwick, 31, a programmer who lives in Moe near Melbourne, Australia, says he has been hooked on it for two years. He now thinks of Imgur as his Internet home.
Stradwick pops in and out of Imgur throughout the day to see whether any fun new images have surfaced on the home page. When he finds one he leaves a comment that often features a clever pun.
"It's quite addictive seeing people upvote you and trying to get the top comment on an image," he said.