It’s easy to forget how fragile the Internet’s memory is, but last month members of the Something Awful forums received a rude reminder. Ubiquitous image host Imgur announced that it would be removing nudity and pornography starting in mid-May, and along with it, “old, unused, and inactive content” that isn’t linked to an account. The wording was so vague that no one knew exactly what that meant. But the worst case scenario was obvious: an unceremonious purge of images from one of the oldest communities on the web. A frantic discussion thread started, and soon, the solution seemed obvious too. Using a spreadsheet as their base of operations, with a tight deadline of May 15, the members of Something Awful had to help download the source images from as many Imgur links as possible; ideally, anything that has been published on the site.
A few weeks later, the owner of Something Awful, who calls himself Jeffrey from YOSPOS, is feeling confident. “We’re rock solid,” said Jeffrey the edge via forum direct message. Although there is still a lot of work to be done, he says that members of the site have obtained multiple copies of a collection of images and short videos of about three terabytes, which are now found on both users’ and Something Awful’s hard drives. He plans to have them housed by the end of May, leaving minimal space if anything is removed. But what has been dubbed internally as the Great Imgur Download Caper is not a one-time averted crisis. It’s part of an ongoing fight to shore up digital culture and convince people that it matters.
“There are many people who started posting on this site as children and are now raising children of their own.”
something horrible has a long and notorious past, and much of its nearly 25-year history is told through images. The site is one of the wellsprings of our modern visual Internet, responsible for, among other things, the cryptid Slender Man of the last days and the rise of cheeseburger-Happy Cat Lover. It’s a place defined by the constant remixing of weird and funny images, fostered by traditions like Photoshop Phriday, a recurring showcase for creative digital manipulation. “There are a lot of people who started posting on this site as kids and are now raising kids of their own,” says Jeffrey. (Jeffrey is not the site’s first owner; he I bought it in 2020 from founder Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka, who died in 2021). Sharing their visual creations is what keeps many of them coming back.
But the existence of these images has never been exactly stable. Like 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 long time until, almost invariably, services start picking up old photos and leaving thumbnail remnants: a broken Flickr link, ImageShack’s lonely yellow frog. Imgur isn’t the first time members of the site have rushed to endorse a service. In a previous project, they downloaded and relocated a smaller trove of wafflephotos files; some kept images for a full decade, Jeffrey says, before the site could officially restore them.
Jeffrey and a couple of the admins from Something Awful put together the Imgur Download Caper, and it basically involves three steps. The first step was to scrape Something Awful itself, sifting through decades-old 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, members of the site (known as thugs) jumped into action on the second step: dividing up the snippets and downloading them en masse, using scripts shared and modified by other users.
These first two steps were time sensitive. The bullies not only needed to beat Imgur’s mid-May deadline, but they also needed to take into account the possibility that Imgur would treat the download as some kind of attack and strangle her, a possibility that apparently never happened. They’ll have more leeway for the third and final step: hosting the images on servers paid for by Something Awful, and then overwriting the direct links from the original posts to point to them. “We have to coordinate to get everything in one place and validate it, but we can take our time and get it right,” says Jeffrey.
Jeffrey says he’s also been in contact with the Archive Team, the self-described community of “rogue archivists” that 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 Arkiver the edge which is backing up links at a rate of around 600 posts per second, adding up to hundreds of millions of downloads. That offers a last resort alternative to Something Awful. No matter who is backing up the images, however, forum admins will have to do the work of updating posts to ensure they link to the archived images, keeping their original context preserved.
“Websites that promise to ‘host your images for free’ will never stop running out of money”
It’s possible that even without any of these preservation efforts, many of the Imgur links would have remained healthy due to the few details Imgur has offered about what it’s removing. (The company, acquired by MediaLab in 2021, did not respond to a request for more details from the edge in April.) But Jeffrey says seeking an answer is a “missing proposition” for the site. “Clearly we need to host our own images. Websites that promise to ‘host your images for free’ will never stop running out of money; it’s almost impossible to monetize a site like that,” he says. “We have an opportunity here to break out of that cycle for good.” The hosting expansion is a project that was already on the site’s radar, he says, but one that Imgur’s impending changes have made more pressing.
Something Awful has the advantage of being a paid forum: there’s a $10 fee to sign up, plus more perks like private messaging or an ad-free site. Jeffrey estimates that hosting the Imgur files will cost between $80 and $100 per month plus an unknown cost for the initial file, a price he says registration fees will help defray. On other sites, administrators can face the same challenges without the same support. “So much of the modern Internet is treated as transient and ‘it’s okay to delete it anytime,’ and that’s a real shame,” says Jeffrey. “Doesn’t anyone on Reddit care that fifteen years of Reddit posts are suddenly full of broken links?”
In fact, parts of the Internet have moved towards the ephemeral and deliberate 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 remove potentially embarrassing information from the web. And many of the images on Something Awful are silly, obscene, offensive, or all of the above. As a Twitter voyeur highlighted, opening any of those downloaded files means risking viewing the internet’s most infamous shocking images. When the Imgur news first broke, at least some members thought the purge might not be a bad thing. Some joked about how they finally said goodbye to the embarrassing climbs of their younger selves.
But history is made of silly and embarrassing ephemera. “If anyone ever looks back at our society, he won’t be able to understand it without understanding the Internet. Anyone who spends any appreciable amount of time online will experience both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer,” says Jeffrey. “People put a lot of themselves into their online presence and that’s reason enough to sign up, warts and all.”
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