The following is the full transcript of Imgur’s CEO Alan Schaaf’s TEDx talk: Breaking Outside of Your Friends List at TEDxWellington.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Breaking outside of your friends list by Alan Schaaf at TEDxWellington
Five years ago, I created a website called Imgur, which is now one of the top 50 most trafficked websites on the internet. And I was helped by my involvement with online communities.
When I was growing up, I had a deep passion for computers and programming. I remember coming home from school, running up the stairs to my room and just being on my computer for the entire night until it was time for bed.
My mom could not understand what I was doing up there but I was essentially breaking my computer and then fixing it again. Over and over, trying to customize it to make it do what I wanted. Things like installing new parts, writing small programs to move files around. I even wrote a small program that shut down the computer as soon as it booted up.
Every time something went wrong, rather than bringing it in to be repaired, I would just search the internet for a solution. And almost every time, I would land upon a community forum where people were talking about the exact thing that I was trying to do. If I didn’t, then I would just post to a community forum to ask my question and then wait for an answer.
So what my mom didn’t know at the time was that I had actually discovered this world of anonymous strangers on the internet sharing knowledge with each other and helping each other out. And over time, I ended up learning more and more about my passion because of it.
So for the next few minutes, you will learn how the internet is changing how we think about community. It used to be an immediate social construct based on religion, education, race or ethnicity, it almost always included a geographic restriction. You interacted directly or physically with the communities to which you belonged.
But the internet allowed the development of communities that are increasingly unbounded. By breaking outside of our friends list, we have the ability to connect with social groups of any size at oftentimes a deeper level than what we can with the people around us.
So I started spending even more time on my computer when I found this game called World of WarCraft. It is a massive online computer game of millions of players. The whole point of the game is to get the best items. But in order to do that, you have to cooperate with as many as 30 players at one time to complete a task, which would usually take about 4 hours.
So after doing that for a while, I began to recognize the people I played with frequently. Each time I played, I would learn a little bit more about them. I would learn that some are students, some are teachers, some are husbands and wives playing together. They would tell me about their family and what they did that weekend, and all the new developments in their lives. It is almost impossible not to talk about these things because the game lasts practically all night.
So after months of playing, I realized that one thing I’d acquired aside from all the sweet items was a second family. So what I discovered from World of WarCraft was unlike anything I had seen before at that time. People weren’t just sharing knowledge with each other anymore, but they were connecting on a much deeper level and becoming friends. Communities like what I found in World of Warcraft consist almost entirely of strangers, located across the world, who come together because they share the same common interest and goals. Even if some of those goals are as silly as bringing down a boss in a computer game. Online communities give people the chance to create long-lasting relationships with other people on the internet.
So when I finally escaped World WarCraft, the next community I joined on the internet was on the website Reddit.com. In its simplest form, Reddit is just a site that allows you to share links. People submit links to interesting things they find on the internet so that people can visit them.
Each link is also posted into a category called a subreddit. So that’s a pretty simple idea but goes much deeper than that. Users of reddit or ‘redditors’, as we like to call ourselves, end up creating very thoughtful discussions in the comment section. We’re not just visiting the link, we’re talking about it and sharing our experiences and our opinions about the subject.
So each subreddit ends up turning into its own micro community around the subject. For example, I joined the dogs community on reddit after adopting my first puppy. Since no one in my immediate social group had a dog at the time, I chose to break outside of my friends list and rely on an online community of over 75,000 people for training tips.
So after spending enough time there, I began to recognize the people of reddit, and there was a true sense of belonging in the community that went with it. So what I learned from joining reddit is that if you have an interest, then there is a community for it online. We now have the ability to join a massive community of millions of people to talk about any subject we could imagine.
What this means is that when you have thousands of people coming together, around very specific interests and goals, and they’re able to actually make some real change in the world. So take this man, Ted Williams, for example. In 2011, Ted was homeless; but then this video of him featuring his golden radio voice reached the internet.
[Video Clip: We’re going to make you work for your dollar, say something with that great radio voice.
Ted Williams: When you’re listening to nothing but the best of oldies, you’re listening to Magic 98.9. Thank you so much. God bless you, thank you. And we will be back with more right after these words.]
After the community on reddit saw that, they donated over a thousand dollars to him, gave him a website and practically made him a household name for a few weeks. He is now no longer homeless, has been featured on over 11 different TV shows, and is working on narrating his own film.
Another example is what happened to Harold Percival. Harold was a World War II veteran who passed away last year at the age of 99. His local newspaper wrote about how he had no close friends or family who could attend his funeral. So it was an open invitation for anyone to join because otherwise no one would. That is until the image of the newspaper was uploaded to Imgur and then subsequently shared throughout the rest of the internet, landing on Facebook, Twitter and reddit, leading up to over 800,000 people seeing it.
By the time the funeral happened just a few days later, over 200 people from all over the country were in attendance. Over time, the more communities on the internet that I belonged to, the more I realized how big their impact on the world was. By bringing together the energy of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people, online communities can achieve things that would have been otherwise impossible for any one person to achieve.
Online communities can help people in need, defeat bad guys and solve some of the toughest problems out there. By working together, the internet is the closest thing we have to a real-life superhero.
Online communities can help you too with any interest you have. When I was building Imgur, I leveraged design communities to help me finalize my logo. This is the progression that the logo took from 2009 till today after I asked the internet for help.
I also asked the internet for help for programming, on helping me solve the problems of the code itself, as well as other communities such as web development, server administration and business. Because of this I was able to run the site myself for the first two years scaling it to over ten million users by seeking out knowledge in the right places.
And I couldn’t have done it any other way. When I launched imgur, I was a poor undergrad attending Ohio University. I simply didn’t have the resources to hire genius programmers or designers. Online communities gave me the support I needed to make Imgur happen.