Today, while browsing the internet and looking at some “old” guides from 2012 I came across a familiar sight: a forum thread with hundreds of inline images, all of them once hosted with ImageShack, now permanently inaccessible. For those of you too green to remember, ImageShack and PhotoBucket were the Imgurs of yesteryear. Free photo/image hosting/sharing services that stepped in to fill the void when users needed to share pics on sites that didn’t offer image uploading/hosting themselves.
Today, it is far more likely that users recognize the names of once-behemoths PhotoBucket or ImageShack not from their years of glory but from coming across images like this, the fossils that remain from the time when these two beasts ruled the image hosting world and roamed the interwebs unopposed:1
Don’t let the text in the photos deceive you – chances are, when you see images like this it’s not because someone messed up but rather because these sites that once burned through VC money like there was no tomorrow raced to conquer the web, heedless of the costs it would run them once they gained dominance and the chickens came home to roost. Faced with insurmountably-growing costs and left footing massive bandwidth bills as the size and sheer quantity of shared photos skyrocketed, these giants turned against their users, blocking images hosted from other sites and deleting free content hosted with their services.
That was, in internet parlance, eons ago. Today, there is a new, undisputed king-of-the-hill and Imgur’s adoring users gleefully upload images and memes by the petabyte. While current numbers are hard to come by, Imgur is likely the number one resource for uploading images for hotlinking from other sites, as the other popular image sharing services (namely, Facebook, Snapshat, Instagram, and co.) are all built around closed gardens rather than embracing the open web.
What Imgur has accomplished is undeniably great and of incalculable merit and benefit to the web. What started off as a place for Redditors to upload and share images turned into the image hosting engine for the entire social web, with some sites like the Stack Exchange network entirely outsourcing their image uploading to Imgur’s API and servers. But the question remains: once the $40 million Imgur raised in 2017 from Andreeson Horowitz dries up,2 what happens to the rest of the web?
Organizations like Archive.org have made it their goal to archive and save as much of the open web as possible, both for posterity and historical record. Of particular note is the Internet Archive’s notable effort to index and save as much of Yahoo!’s GeoCities before it was taken offline in 2009. But unless you’re particularly motivated or particularly geeky (or perhaps, enough of both), you likely won’t know to replace geocities.com with geocities.ws/oocities.org/retrocities.com in the URL bar when you come across a broken GeoCities.com link that happens to contain some content you are searching for. Unfortunately, not only is that not an option for the likes of PhotoBucket and ImageShack for technical reasons – it’s much harder to modify the URL of a thousand embedded images in random links all over the web than it is to change a TLD in your address bar – but also for the simple fact that their data was never indexed and archived, and what’s dead is forever gone.
A few years back Almost a decade ago, we realized the danger of hotlinking images and went back and cached every image we were hotlinking or inlining with a script that crawled through our site and found all references to external domains like ImageShack and Wikipedia then saved the contents on our own servers for future-proofing and posterity. But we’re a tiny site without much user-generated content or hotlinked images. The picture is drastically different for social media sites like reddit or even other, smaller fish, as is the magnitude and scale of the undertaking. While the relationship between Imgur and reddit took a turn for the worse around mid-2016 when reddit finally launched their own image uploading feature around the same time that Imgur decided it had enough of being someone else’s lapdog and decided to go full-on social, the fact remains that Imgur is huge and the lives of everyone online would change, decidedly for the worst, should it suddenly go offline or block hotlinking like each and every “free” image host has done in the past.
This isn’t really anything new,3 and it’s all been seen, said, and done before. The solution is simple, though decidedly unglamorous: sites need to step up their game and make sure that they host their own content. Being beholden to some external entity and powerless to weather changes of their whim is not the smart way to go. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that relying on an external image host for your users’ content4 should perhaps be the canonical example of technical debt. Self-hosted options for image hosting are aplenty, and though it would be rather cavalier to call it “no big deal,” it really isn’t unless you are operating at scale, in which case, you can file it under the large and never-ending list of so-called “good problems to have.”
Consider this an official warning. Heed this call before it becomes too late. All of this has happened before, and will happen again.
If the images below give you pause or perhaps make your heart skip a beat – know that you’re not alone. It brings us much pain and no comic relief to un-ironically embed these “image not found” images in this post. ↩
Which, arguably, isn’t much compared to the Snapchats and Instagrams of today’s world. ↩
“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” -Ecclesiastes 1:9 ↩
Unless you have a bulletproof contract with them, an SLA, and legal options for recourse should the data vanish or the host renege on their agreement, that is. ↩