It’s easy to forget how fragile internet memory is, but last month, members of the Something Awful forums got a gross reminder. Ubiquitous image host Imgur announced that starting in mid-May it would be removing nudity and pornography, along with “old, unused and inactive content” not associated with an account. The wording was so vague that no one knew exactly what it meant. But the worst-case scenario was obvious: an unceremoniously deleted footage from one of the internet’s longest-running communities. A hectic discussion thread ensued, and soon the solution seemed obvious as well. Using a spreadsheet as a home base, with a tight deadline of May 15, the members of Something Awful had to help download the source images of as many Imgur links as possible – ideally everything that had ever been posted to the site.
A few weeks later, the owner of Something Awful – whose name is Jeffrey from YOSPOS – is feeling confident. “We’re rock solid,” Jeffrey said The edge via a direct message on the forum. While there’s still plenty of work to be done, he says site members have obtained multiple copies of a collection of about three terabytes of photos and short videos, which now reside on users’ and Something Awful’s hard drives. He plans to host them at the end of May, leaving a minimal gap if anything is removed. But what’s internally called the Great Imgur Download Caper isn’t a one-time averted crisis. It’s part of an ongoing battle to support digital culture and convince people that it matters.
“There are a lot of people who started on this site as kids and are now raising kids of their own.”
Something Awful has a long and infamous past, and much of its nearly 25-year history is told through pictures. The site is one of the founders of our modern visual internet, responsible for the contemporary cryptic Slender Man and the rise of the cheezburger-loving Happy Cat, among other things. It’s a place defined by the constant remixing of weird and funny imagery, encouraged by traditions like Photoshop Phriday, a recurring showcase for creative digital manipulation. “There are a lot of people who started on this site as kids and are now raising kids of their own,” says Jeffrey. (Jeffrey isn’t the original owner of the site; he bought it in 2020 from founder Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka, who died in 2021.) Sharing their visual creations kept many of them coming back.
But the existence of these images has never been exactly stable. As with many forums, Something Awful has historically relied on third-party hosts like Imgur, which promise free uploads with just a few clicks. It’s a great deal until, almost always, the services start culling old photos and leaving behind thumbnail scraps: a broken Flickr link, ImageShack’s lone yellow frog. Imgur isn’t the first time the site’s members have rushed to back up a service. On a previous project, they downloaded and rehosted a smaller batch of Waffle Photos files — some of which kept images for a decade, Jeffrey says, before the site was able to officially restore them.
Organized by Jeffrey and a few Something Awful admins, the Imgur Download Caper basically involves three steps. The first step was to scrape Something Awful itself, parsing the decades worth of threads to identify and extract links to Imgur. Those targets were identified and compiled into giant text files, each containing 100,000 Imgur link addresses. From there, the site’s members (known as goons) sprang into action on the second step: dividing up the chunks and downloading them en masse, using scripts shared and modified by other posters.
These first two steps were time sensitive. Not only did goons have to meet Imgur’s mid-May deadline, but they also had to factor in the possibility that Imgur might treat the download as some kind of attack and throttle it – a possibility that, it turns out, never materialized. They have more leeway for the third and final step: hosting the images from servers paid for by Something Awful itself, then overwriting the original posts’ hotlinks to point to them. “We have to coordinate to get everything in one place and get it validated, but we can take the time to get it right,” says Jeffrey.
Jeffrey says he’s also interacted with Archive Team, the self-proclaimed “rogue archivist” community that has stepped in to preserve cultural artifacts like SoundCloud music and Google Plus posts. Archive Team is working on its own large-scale Imgur project, says team member Akiver The edge that it backs up links at a rate of about 600 submissions per second, which equates to hundreds of millions of downloads. That provides a last resort for Something Awful. It doesn’t matter who backs up the photos, however, the forum administrators will have to do the work of updating posts to ensure they link to archived images, preserving their original context.
“Websites that promise to ‘host your images for free’ will never run out of money”
It’s possible that even without any of these preservation attempts, many of the Imgur links would remain healthy given the little detail Imgur has provided about what it removes. (The company, acquired by MediaLab in 2021, did not respond to a request for more details from The edge in April.) But Jeffrey says the search for an answer is a “losing proposition” for the site. “Obviously we need to host our own images. Websites that promise to ‘host your images for free’ will never run out of money – it’s almost impossible to make money with such a site,’ he says. “We have a chance here to get out of that circle for good.” Expanding hosting is a project that was already on the site’s radar, he says, but one that Imgur’s impending changes have made more urgent.
Something Awful has the advantage of being a paid forum – you have to pay $10 to sign up, plus more for perks like direct messaging or an ad-free site. Jeffrey estimates that the Imgur files will cost between $80 and $100 a month to host, on top of the unknown initial archiving fee, a price he says will help cover the registration fee. On other sites, administrators may face the same challenges without the same support. “Much of the modern internet is treated as temporary and ‘okay to delete anytime’, and that’s a real shame,” says Jeffrey. “Doesn’t anyone at Reddit care that 15 years of Reddit posts will suddenly be full of broken links?”
Basically sharing the internet to have moved to deliberate impermanence and obscurity. People have flocked to disappearing messaging platforms and closed forums like Discord, which have few meaningful archiving options. European privacy laws have enshrined a “right to be forgotten” that allows people to delete potentially embarrassing information from the internet. And many of Something Awful’s images are silly, obscene, offensive, or all of the above. If a Twitter voyeur stressed, opening one of those downloaded files means risking keeping an eye out for the internet’s most notorious shocking images. When the Imgur news first broke, at least a few members thought the purge wouldn’t be a bad thing. Some lame jokes about how they can finally say goodbye to the chilling uploads of their younger selves.
But history is made up of silly, embarrassing ephemera. “If anyone ever looks back at our society, they won’t be able to understand it without understanding the internet. Anyone who spends a significant amount of time online will experience both the best and worst that humanity has to offer,” says Jeffrey. “People put a lot of themselves into their internet presence and that’s reason enough to include it, warts and all.”