NEW YORK -- On a desk in a small startup's office buried deep within the packed streets of San Francisco's busy financial district, a potato rots away.
"I normally try to start with an icebreaker, but this is probably more for me, for morbid curiosity," I asked. "Why have you kept a potato on your desk for the past three months?"
That's the very first question I asked Sarah Schaaf, the community director at Imgur, who has become the face of one of the world's largest free-moving groups of online people in living history. You either know the site or you don't, but there's a good chance by sheer probability that you've stumbled across it. Its appeal is that it's open to anyone -- with or without logging in. That's helped drive the image hoster serve up over 60 billion images to more than 150 million monthly active users. Built in 2009 by her brother Alan Schaaf as he studied at Ohio University, the site has since evolved into an almost-entirely democratic community, where its users determine daily what stays and what goes, and where memes and jokes are born and pushed into the mainstream.
"I never did find out who sent that potato, but since then it's kinda become its own joke," said Sarah. "I don't know why I kept it for so long... I'm weirdly attached to it," she said. (She suspects another Imgurian, the name for a person who uses the site, sent the potato through the mail. She's kept the community up-to-date on the status of its decay.)
Imgur may be widely known as an image sharing site, but its community is the driving force of the site's success. As the community grows, the company's biggest challenge is turning that burgeoning user-base into a successful business without losing its identity.
That's where Sarah, a millennial from a small town in Ohio who grew up on the internet, comes into play. Her job is to oversee, nurture and advocate for the site's users, which became as much as a pillar of Imgur's core business as is making money.
We spoke earlier this month. Here are some of the highlights of the conversation:
On the social network that never was
It's hard to put Imgur into words.
It's not just an image sharer. It's not just a community. And it's certainly not a social network. Facebook and Twitter rely on friends lists and follower counts, but Imgur was never designed that way. That, said Sarah, means everyone sees the "exact same thing."
In its early days, the site was designed to serve as an extension of link- and content-sharing site Reddit. When Alan added a comments feature, an eruption of conversation began. It quickly dawned on the two siblings that its users weren't there just to upload. Through sheer spontaneity and chance, the siblings began to build on the burgeoning community, nurturing it into the multi-million user base that it is today.
What sets Imgur apart from the rest of the sites out there? Sarah said it's "authentic."
"I'm sick of going on my Facebook and seeing my smiling friends and 'this was the best weekend ever!'," she said. "And I'm happy for them, but I never see anything else but the most exciting, best time of your life on Facebook."
"The internet right now is burdened with the idea of algorithms and curated things," she said. "Imgur sees the full range of human emotions, whether it's something depressing or hilarious and jokey."
On being the user's advocate
Sarah has a unique relationship with the community. It's her job to oversee and listen to the site's users, who in turn treat her with adoration. It's the community -- more than 75 percent are in the millennials age category -- which calls the shots.
"My job specifically is to always advocate for the users," she said. (You could hear in her voice, the minute she talked about the innards of the community, that she loves this job.) "The community's happiness level is most important for me," she said.
The community is mostly self-sufficient, but it's growing in size and demand. She conceded that there was a lot the company could do for its users in the future, but that her department is effectively just her (and the potato).
To do more, Imgur recently hired a developer to work with Sarah to help respond to some of the "sillier" requests, such as tweaking the design of the site, adding new features, or -- in what has become one of the site's running jokes -- even changing the loading "GIF" animation, which Sarah said she hasn't ruled out.
On being the public face of millions
Most online moderators are thought of as basement dwellers. But with Sarah it's not difficult to put a face behind the name.
Almost every day, something new and hand-curated will land at the Imgur office. "We get gifts all the time... maybe a few per week, I'd say," said Sarah.
One of the community's inside jokes is that everything large or small can be compared to a banana "for scale." One of the more memorable gifts sent to the office was a solid metal banana that the office Imgurians could use for scale. So much of a joke it's become that in one instance an Imgurian from out of town turned up to the company's front door dressed in a giant banana suit.
"Our office manager came to my desk and said, 'Sarah, there's a banana here to see you'," she said, laughing. The banana-suited Imgurian wanted to become the site's new loading animation, which Sarah admitted she calls a "jif," in line with how the inventor pronounces it.
On making mistakes and mea culpas
It's Sarah who exclusively oversees the community every day, out of a team of about 65 employees -- which has more than doubled in size in the past year following a $40 million financial investment by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz in early 2014. The company had been self-sufficient and profitable.
In recent months the company has invested those funds into growth and further financial stability. The problem is, people hate change -- even if it's to better serve the community.
Take the company's recent mobile push. Its long-awaited Android app was released, but fell short of expectations. Granted, the complaints were generally civil. One post received considerable attention from the community. Both Sarah and Alan were at a co-worker's picnic at the time, but Sarah knew Alan should address the concerns directly. Within a few hours of collecting feedback from the comments section, the chief executive issued a mea culpa.
"We're listening," he said. "I agree with almost everything you guys mentioned, and in fact, we're working on almost all of that stuff right now." In a casual and honest note, he suggested as a workaround to use the mobile site instead.
"It's really important to respond to those kinds of things -- especially at a higher level -- so people know that we're taking it seriously," said Sarah.
On bringing community to corporate culture
Sarah described how she and Alan "grew up" having fun on the internet with the community that was finding itself.
"We were a ten-person team for a couple of years, and we felt like a family," she said. She described how the company had grown alongside its users who had invested their time and devotion to the service. She described it as a "humbling" experience.
Thanks in part to the $40 million cash injection, the company has beefed up its teams. "We've grown, but we try to maintain that small family feeling," said Sarah. Even in the hiring experience, the community ranks highly in the many list of factors.
"We've put a lot of importance on the culture fits, and we don't want to hire people for the money," she said. "We want people who really understand the love for the Imgur community that we have."
On promoted posts and profitability
Imgur announced late May that it would begin experimenting with paid-for promoted content. The move was to avoid using annoying banner adverts to generate money. Imgur hired from within the community to help develop the native posts and ease the transition.
But as is the nature of the community beast, a single policy change or feature update can be met with cheers or an uproar, and it's hard to predict the outcome.
Cue the backlash. The community began to downvote the sponsored posts into oblivion. Warner Bros., one of the first advertisers, was the focus of the most blame, but a good portion was reserved for Imgur for allowing it to happen. The community processed the controversy by promoting and upvoting posts that discussed the matter.
It's no coincidence that the announcement of promoted posts coincided with the furore over comments removals, which led certain "not safe for work" comments being scrubbed from the site.
A revolt was brewing.
Sarah woke up the next day with a deluge of comments, some less nice than others. "I'm hoping to clear some things up if you'll hear me out," she said. She explained that the rules had been there for a while, but were generally enforced by the community itself through flagging and downvoting rather than a proactive role by in-house moderators. That policy hadn't changed, but it was the first time it had been noticed.
"We did not do a great job of communicating with the community," said Sarah, when asked about what happened. "We had these [rules] for a while, but the downside of living on Pacific time is that this was going on for so long without anyone seeing it."
"People are so passionate about Imgur that this is what they want to spend their day crusading for," she said. "And I think we needed to take that voice seriously. They care about the direction of Imgur. It was really a learning experience for us."
Equally as important for the community are the advertisers. There's no real way that Imgur can guarantee that posts from advertisers won't be sandwiched between two unsavory or controversial posts. That's the job for the advertising team, and not her.
Sarah said that if the advertising team comes up with some promoted posts that are terrible, the community is going to be "very vocal" about it. And, as the person who knows the community better than anyone, she's the last person on the approvals line to have the final say on these posts.
"I'm on the side of, yes dickbutt!" she said, referencing one of the site's most popular memes, like Overly Attached Girlfriend, and Javert. "It's their job to reach the happy medium, but I'm always on the side of the Imgurians," she said.
On what keeps her awake at night
Imgur by day, Imgur by night. "It's always something to do with Imgur," said Sarah.
"Just as we're growing it's very natural for me to get stressed out, and I want to be sure that we're always doing this to bring joy to Imgurians. That is what it's really about for me," she said. "I pretty much lay awake at night thinking about how to maintain that," she said.
On the goals ahead
Imgur may have started out in a single room in Ohio, but the company has now settled on its third corporate office -- even if it retains its brick-walled and Mac-donned startup vibe.
Now the big question is, "What's next?"
For the community, Sarah has a simple vision. The end goal is to bring happiness.
"Even outside the core community members who are really passionate about Imgur, it brings a ton of joy to everybody and anybody," said Sarah. "People come to Imgur when they're experiencing something negative... either I'm bored, or I need to connect with somebody. Whether you spend one minute there or blow off your whole workday, there's a value for you to find something that's going to make a passionate impact on you. "For that reason alone, keeping the community content is always going to be a challenge.
But that's what makes the community so vocal about Sarah, and the company she works for. She isn't just a figure on the internet, but a friend, crusader, and supporter. And what better way to show that by sending a potato adorned with postage stamps through the mail.
(Update: cat tax.)
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