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The Anti-Social Network

Alan Schaaf transformed a simple file uploader into a viral content empire. Now he has to turn Imgur into a business.

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The first thing you notice at Imgur’s new San Francisco office are the giraffes. They’re everywhere: inflatable giraffes, posters of kissing giraffes, a massive mural of a giraffe donning a monocle and top hat. “That’s our mascot, Imgurafe,” says 27-year-old founder and CEO Alan Schaaf. “It started as an April Fool’s joke when we added a giraffe theme to the site for a day and got e-mails for six months begging us to bring it back.”

For Imgur—the Web host of most of the Internet’s memes, GIFs, jokes and tropes—the giraffe is a perfect mascot: strange, awkward and huge. Each month Imgur (pronounced “imager”) attracts more than 150 million unique visitors, more than 5.5 billion page views and 45 million new images. Since 2009, when Schaaf built the site in his Ohio University dorm, Imgur has become the default launchpad where content is uploaded before blasting off across Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and the blogosphere.

But Imgur is increasingly shifting from being an image host to a prime destination of its own.

Roughly 30% of its audience (largely young and geeky) now views content directly on the Imgur home page and mobile app.

That trend helped Schaaf raise $40 million from the venture capitalists at Andreessen Horowitz in April 2014, after bootstrapping the site for its first five years. “It’s an incredible community,” says Andreessen partner Lars Dalgaard.

“Users are building meaningful relationships with people they might not ever see and are finding people that they have more in common with than anyone at work or school.”

Imgur now has to start making real money of all that traffic while dealing with a social network unlike Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

Imgur’s content isn’t shaped by friends or follows. Everyone sees the same images on the home page, ranked by popular vote. Top posts can get thousands of comments and tens of thousands of votes. “Imgur is a shared experience,” says Schaaf. “I don’t see posts because I follow a certain person but because it was voted up through a democracy.”

Navigating the site feels like channel surfing on public access television: a GIF of a bear playing in hay; a tutorial on how to use a battery and gum wrapper to start a campfire; a visual story of how one Imgur user helped another Photoshop away surgical stitches in a photo of her grandfather. “It’s impossible to go on Imgur for less than five minutes,” says Schaaf. “It’s true discovery. You start without wanting to see something in particular but find stuff you like every single time.”

Schaaf knows what the Imgur horde loves because he is one of them. As a shy and introverted kid growing up outside of Tampa, Fla., he moved to Ohio at age 10 and found his community on Web forums for games such as World of Warcraft. In high school he helped run the student IT support team and the school’s website.

As a computer science major at Ohio University he got into college radio, hosting a tech talk show and spinning electronic music: “I like to sit in my room, and I communicate out.”

Around this time he got heavily involved in another platform—the massive Web bulletin board Reddit. He loved the site but hated the tedious process of uploading images.

“It wasn’t Reddit’s problem but the Internet’s problem,” says Schaaf. “I thought, ‘I can do better.’” Schaaf, at the time a college junior, built an upload tool in two months. It was simple and sparse and could turn pictures into Web links with the press of a button. He shared his project with Reddit. It took off – and crashed. He moved to a larger Web-hosting service – it crashed that, too. He burned through four server sites before eventually turning it over to Amazon Web Services. “I had no experience handling traffic, but I had to learn. If I didn’t fix it then, Imgur wouldn’t exist,” says Schaaf, who credits Imgur’s survival on the self-reliance he had learned from his mom, Jean Hoyt. “She built her own company [real estate appraisal], and when something breaks in the house, like, ‘We need a new toilet,’ she installs it.”

Small ads on Imgur covered server fees and the occasional pizza through graduation. Schaaf shrugged off job offers from Facebook and Google to move home and run Imgur out of his bedroom. By 2010 Schaaf was making enough to rent an apartment and hire Matt Strader (an M.B.A. student whom Schaaf met through an Ohio University investment fund) to focus on the business side. In 2011, with Imgur getting 30 million monthly uniques, Schaaf and Strader (now Imgur’s COO) moved to San Francisco and hired four employees.

That number has grown to 45 since the $40 million venture round last spring. Schaaf says he’ll hit 90 employees by the end of the year as Imgur attracts a more mainstream audience through its new iOS app, launched in March.

Plans are afoot to jump to Web-connected TVs.

Says Andreessen Horowitz’s Lars Dalgaard: “This is amazing content that is not being seen by even a percent of the people who’d be elated and ecstatic if they knew it existed.”

The bulk of Imgur’s revenue today comes from the single ad on each page. To fuel more growth, Imgur is building an in-house agency that will create and publish branded images, so-called native ads, designed for viral sharing. Schaaf says these ads will mesh with the style and tastes of the site. Test campaigns for films and games (Grand Theft Auto V) were a hit with users, with some ads getting liked and shared by an average of 4% of the audience. Imgur must tread lightly. Online clans, especially those emboldened by their anonymity, can protest viciously about commercials in their feeds. “The most valuable thing about Imgur is the community,” says Schaaf. “Only we can take the community away.”

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‘AI Is A Powerful Tool’

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Research forecasts that by 2025, machines will perform more current work tasks than humans. Murat Sonmez, member of the managing board, and Head of the Centre for the WEF Fourth Industrial Revolution Network, expands on the role humans might play.


The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is at the center of the current economic frontier. In reality, is Africa prepared for such changes?

Moving quickly and being agile are key principles of success in the 4IR. Any country can succeed if they take on this mindset. A few years ago, Rwanda saw the opportunities drones, a 4IR technology, brought to their country.

They helped save over 800 lives by delivering blood to remote villages. To scale this, the government worked with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) drones’ team to create the world’s first agile airspace regulation. Now, we see countries in Africa and around the world looking to the Rwandan model.

READ MORE | 5 Ways Tech Can Revolutionize Education

What feasible solutions can  artificial intelligence (AI) offer in terms of forecasting natural disasters, droughts food security on the African continent?

AI can help predict diseases, increase agriculture yields and help first responders. It is a powerful tool for governments and businesses, but it needs a lot of data to be effective.

For AI to be all that it can be, countries and companies need to work together to build frameworks for better management and protection of our data and ensure that it is shared and not stored in silos. Data is the oxygen of the (4IR). If countries do not leverage data and have their policies in place, they will be left behind.

There is a growing concern that the 4IR will strip people of jobs, of which there is already a shortage. How true is this?

The world is going through a workplace revolution that will bring a seismic shift in the way humans work alongside machines and algorithms.

Latest research from the WEF forecasts that by 2025, machines will perform more current work tasks than humans, compared to 71% being performed by humans today.

READ MORE | Roadmap For African Startups

The rapid evolution of machines and algorithms in the workplace could create 133 million new roles in place of 75 million that will be displaced between now and 2022.

Consumers have real concerns around the potential harm technology can cause in areas such as privacy, misinformation, surveillance, job loss, environmental damage and increased inequality. What ethical precautions are being considered in the robotics space?

Now more than ever, it is important to incorporate ethics into the design, deployment and use of emerging technology. Innovating in the 4IR requires addressing concerns around privacy and data ownership, while attracting the skills and forward-looking thinkers of the future.

There are big challenges and bigger opportunities ahead. We have seen many companies and countries create ethical and human rights-based frameworks. What’s important is they are co-designed with members of both communities along with academia, civil society and start-ups.

A multi-stakeholder approach will result in a more holistic set of guidelines and principles that can be adopted in many different industries and geographies.

READ MORE | It’s Time For Africa’s Gazelles To Shine

What changes need to take place for the African continent to be on par with global developments, and are there tangible goals set?

The 4IR provides governments the opportunity to be global leaders in shaping the next 20 to 30 years of science and technology. It is important they create an environment where companies can innovate.

The other tenet is to be open to working across borders and learning from each other. The global health industry has access to mountains of data on rare diseases, but it is trapped within countries and sometimes even within the hospital walls.

If we can build trust and find innovative ways to share the data while protecting privacy, we can employ tools like AI to help us cure disease faster. Countries and companies need to have the right governance frameworks and mechanisms in place for these breakthroughs to happen. It is possible to do these things now, but we need to work together to make it happen.

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Businesses At The Heart Of A Greener Future

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With every day that passes by it becomes more apparent that the Earth is deteriorating and time is running out to save it. Scientists have estimated that we have less than a decade to save the planet before it is irreversibly damaged, mainly due to climate change.

Businesses claim the largest percentage of global emissions (at approximately 70% since 1988, according to The Guardian) which is an alarming statistic, especially in a time when the planet’s well-being is being compromised.

Many large business corporations are hastily coming on board with operating sustainably by transforming their practices and placing business ethics at the forefront of their priorities.

READ MORE | The Most Sustainable Companies In 2019

Last week, a round table discussion was held at the Fairlawns Boutique Hotel, Sandton hosted by Environmental Resources Management (ERM) – the world’s largest sustainability consulting firm. Their aim was to discuss how imperative it is for African businesses to get on board with sustainability.

“We have been talking about how to be sustainable for a long time but now it is time for us to do sustainability,” says Thapelo Letete, Technical Director of ERM.

An engaging and thought-provoking panel discussion ensued with representatives from ERM and mining companies, Anglo American and Gold Fields. They emphasized the importance of sustainability being recognized by investors, especially in mining and oil companies that rely solely on Earth’s natural resources.

Civil society has a colossal role to play in ensuring the sustainability of businesses. Due to the law of supply and demand in production, consumers are being urged to be mindful of their buying habits and to make sustainable decisions. These are as simple as minimizing the utilization of plastic straws by replacing them with metal or paper straws and reusable shopping bags and by recycling selected items.

READ MORE | Challenging The Gender Divide

“Research suggests that socially and environmentally responsible practices have the potential to garner more positive consumer perceptions of (businesses), as well as increases in profitability,” according to an entry in Sage Journals published in May.

The advancement of science, artificial intelligence and the rapid growth of the technological industry make it an undeniable fact that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is underway. Many businesses across the globe seem to be well prepared for this change. However, businesses in Africa seem to be vulnerable. 

“It is difficult to say that all businesses in Africa are prepared for it. It is not a country specific thing but it does vary across corporations. There will be businesses that are well prepared and businesses that are not so well prepared,” says Keryn James, CEO of ERM.

A large part of sustainability also relies on empowerment and equality. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of female-owned businesses who contribute a large amount of money towards their respective countries’ GDPs. However, most of these businesses struggle with the issue of scaling.

“Women sometimes underestimate their ability and they don’t necessarily  have the confidence that they should have about the value that their businesses present. Women often take less risks than men,” says James.

“The issue of scaling is one that we see globally. One of the issues are access to funding to support in the investment and growth of their businesses.”

READ MORE | Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa

Going forward, the availability of mentorship programmes and skills development opportunities for women, especially black women in business should be encouraged.

According to a study done by the UN Women’s organization, an average of 3 out of 7 women score higher in performance when they are placed in senior managerial positions. Additionally, if more women work, the more countries can exponentially maximise their economic growth.

Women will be empowered when given the correct skills and opportunities to be able to run their own businesses independently which would ultimately lead to the scaling of female-owned businesses in Africa and sustainable development.

The Nedbank Capital Sustainable Business Awards aim to recognize the efforts of businesses that operate sustainably and to encourage other corporations who intend to adopt more sustainable strategies into their practices. Initiatives such as these prove that business value also depends on how sustainable they are.

It is clear that the prioritization of sustainability and accountability in businesses is the only way forward in the midst of this global crisis. With a combination of will and the rigorous work that African businesses have put into sustainability initiatives and strategies, it is easier to be optimistic about our planet’s wellbeing.

-Buhle Ntusi

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Ex-Google Staffer Says After Split With Chief Legal Officer David Drummond: ‘Hell Does Not Begin To Capture My Life’

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Former Google employee Jennifer Blakely has written a scathing blog post with allegations about how her affair with chief legal officer David Drummond unfolded.


A former member of Google’s legal team who says she had a child with the company’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, has written a scathing blog post about the way that their relationship unfolded within the search engine giant, including that he issued “terrifying threats” to take custody of their child after initially refusing to pay child support.

In a Medium post, Jennifer Blakely says that she was inspired to detail her experience after an explosive New York Times story last fall put a spotlight on how the company shielded top executives from harassment claims and sparked massive employee protests.

“Looking back, I see how standards that I was willing to indulge early on became institutionalized behavior as Google’s world prominence grew and its executives grew more powerful,” Blakely writes.

READ MORE | Google, Facebook, Twitter Fail To Live Up To Fake News Pledge

“Women that I worked with at Google who have spoken to me since the New York Times article have told me how offended they were by the blatant womanizing and philandering that became common practice among some (but certainly not all) executives, starting at the very top.” 

While her relationship with the married Drummond was included in the Times story and first reported byThe Information in November 2017, this is the first time Blakely has written about the experience herself.

Drummond is one of several current and former Google executives who has reportedly had relationships with employees or extramarital affairs, including Eric Schmidt, Sergey Brin, and Andy Rubin.

READ MORE | Calling Out Sexual Harassment

Blakely alleges that after their relationship ended, Drummond had another relationship with a subordinate, which is against Google’s workplace policy. He is still employed by Google and made more than $47 million last year. 

Blakely says that she started working in Google’s legal department under Drummond in 2001 and that after he told her that he was estranged from his wife, they began a relationship in 2004. She says the two had a child together in 2007 and that Google’s human resources department then told her that one of them had to leave the department.

She moved to sales, an area where she had no experience, and subsequently struggled with her work. Blakely alleges that after she ultimately left the company at Drummond’s urging in 2008, but that while they were living together in Palo Alto, he broke off their relationship via text message.

“‘Hell’ does not begin to capture my life since that day,” she writes. “I’ve spent the last 11 years taking on one of the most powerful, ruthless lawyers in the world. From that fateful night forward, David did things exclusively on his terms.” 

She alleges that Drummond initially refused to see their son or pay child support, and then fought against her in a custody battle. While she says they ultimately reached a settlement and he began paying child support, she writes that “months or years” would go by when he wouldn’t see their son. In 2014, Drummond allegedly showed her an article about Eric Schmidt’s reported history of extramarital affairs during an argument, implying that the executive’s position granted him impunity.

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“His ‘personal life’ (which apparently didn’t include his son) was off limits and since I was no longer his ‘personal life’ it was time for me to shut up, fall in line and stop bothering him with the nuisances or demands of raising a child,” Blakely writes.

Blakely’s story is the latest in a string of public posts from former Google employees highlighting issues with the company’s culture and policies (or their lack of enforcement).

One of the women who helped organize last fall’s protests, Claire Stapelton, recently wrote about her experience with retaliation, another employee detailed the disappointing way the company’s human resources department dealt with her harassment reports, and former senior engineer Liz Fong-Jones posted about “grave concerns” with the company’s decision making in general.

The outspokenness of Google employees exemplifies — and has helped spur — a broader activism in the tech sector that has seen workers speaking out against their employer’s internal policies and business decisions.

Blakely’s post also taps into the larger #MeToo movement which has drawn attention to sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace across industries.

“Until truth is willing to speak to power and is heard, there’s not going to be the sea change necessary to bring equality to the workplace,” she writes.

Neither Google nor Drummond immediately responded to a request for comment. 

This story is developing.

-Jillian D’Onfro; Forbes

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