Case Studies


Learn how Unsplash uses Stream to connect the world's most generous community of photographers to share beautiful, free photos.

Thriving Photography Community

Unsplash is a thriving community that shares free-to-use, high resolution photographs that can be used for both personal and commercial projects. Founded in 2013 as a humble Tumblr blog, Unsplash has grown into an industry-leading photography community. Photographers from around the globe are expanding their reach and getting the attention of a wider audience through Unsplash.

Unsplash is becoming the largest repository of new and beautiful Creative Commons Zero images. This means you can copy, modify, distribute and use the photos for free, including commercial purposes; without asking permission from or providing attribution to the photographer or Unsplash.

When Crew needed photos for a project, they hired a local photographer. They didn’t like what they saw for stock photography and wanted something original. They ended up only using one of the images.

Instead of having the images sitting in a folder and never getting used, they bought a Tumblr theme and launched on HackerNews saying, “do whatever you want with these, they are free”. They went to the #1 spot that day.

We put that up on Hackernews, and within a few hours, it went to number one. The site started crashing because we had public Dropbox links. The head of engineering [for Dropbox] happened to look at the Hackernews post and said that they’d upgrade us to the maximum pro plan for the day. They’re not supposed to be used for public Dropbox links, but he said they’d keep the site up because they think it’s cool. And that was day one of Unsplash.
Mikael Cho
Founder Unsplash

Unsplash is a great example of launching a lean product that is entirely lovable from the start. Unsplash could have easily overbuilt the project. Instead, they used Tumblr because the goal was to share, not build a community. Tumblr comes pre-built with a community.

Today Unsplash has grown from a simple Tumblr site to an industry-leading photography community. Photographers have seen their work used from award-winning authors like Deepak Chopra to tech giants like Apple.

What started as a simple promise of 10 free photos every 10 days turned into a site that has over a billion photo views each month with 4 photos being downloaded every second. They eventually moved off Tumblr and started building their own app. As it became clear that the user experience could be improved with feeds, Unsplash turn to Stream, to enable their vibrant community to become more connected and engaging.

With their explosive growth, they have stayed true to the Creative Commons Zero license. Every photo that a photographer adds to Unsplash is a gift to the world. It can be used by anyone and is free to copy, modify and distribute.

Unsplash uses Flat Feeds to display a list of activities.

Unsplash uses Aggregated Feeds to group activities together.

Unsplash uses Notification Feeds to keep followers up to date on activities.

Unsplash 5.0

Unsplash launched version 5 of their product on January 31, 2017. With it came notifications, following and aggregation; all built on top of Stream.

Integrating with Stream allowed Unsplash to further step away from just being a photo host. It is now a platform that enables discovery. Mitchel Lensink, a contributor on Unsplash shared his thoughts on the engagement levels he has on Unsplash (compared to Instagram):

1.000.000+ views, of which 377.000 are gathered in the last month, 8700 downloads and 570 likes. To give you some perspective; I have posted 16 photos on Instagram in the past month, which only provided me with 11.188 views. This is especially striking when you consider that I have about 900 followers on Instagram, compared to about 30 followers on Unsplash.
Mitchell Lensink
Unsplash Photographer

Unsplash was able to build the kind of feed experience that significantly impacted engagement on the photos. It is a big win for the users. That is what their team does best: solve user problems - not technology problems.

The Unsplash feed really helps photographs go viral. When you upload, all your followers are notified and you can watch the likes and shares happen in a natural and organic manner.

Unsplash Feed Examples

There is a home feed, a following feed and a new feed that contains fresh images by chronological order. The scale and complexity of feeds is handled by Stream. Stream easily handles the active user base that generates tens of millions of requests and activities that propagate to 50+ feeds.

Since then more than 250k following relationships have already been created, more than 50M feed updates are pushed every day, and we’ve heard a lot of excitement and good feedback from the community.
Luke Chesser

Fast Production Feeds

Stream gives products fast feeds via an easy to use API. Stream can be used for everything from small notification feeds to powering social networks. Teams launch feature rich feeds and activity streams into their products faster with the Stream API.

Unsplash was able to integrate quickly with Stream to do just that:

We push all of our user activities to Stream, a feed aggregation service, leveraging their knowledge of building and optimizing highly-scalable personalized feeds. Stream simplifies processing billions of activities into a simple API for input and output, with performance that would take our team months, if not years, to learn and optimize.
Luke Chesser

The Unsplash follow feed is a great addition for following famous contributors. You can follow and receive updates on the latest uploads from your favorite photographers. See what your friends are liking and enjoy how much easier it makes discovering great new photos.

Pre-Built Technologies

Unsplash is a beautiful product that is extremely fast and easy to use. Unsplash is poised to expand their product in very exciting directions that are only possible with an engaged and passionate user base; which they have.

With Unsplash ramping more and more volume to Stream, their nimble team can work on new enhancements to the product that benefit the community. The team can continue to use the best tools available to do the job, improve performance and automate their infrastructure.

Stream is handling many diverse and custom use cases. We are thrilled to be part of the Unsplash experience.

Following as a technical concept sounds fairly trivial, but we can assure you that doing it in a future-friendly, reliable way, at scale is a challenge. We leaned heavily on a 3rd party service, Stream, to handle the infrastructure and aggregation, which let us launch Following now and not in 2020. Huge shoutout to their team for all of their help with making the launch a success!
Luke Chesser

Advanced Feeds

If you’ve spent any time on Unsplash, you’ll agree that they crafted a beautiful experience with the Stream API. They’ve done this with a simple integration that helped them launch fast. Compared to in-house solutions, Stream makes feeds trivial to engineer.

Soon Unsplash will roll out impressive improvements to their feed experience by expanding their use of the Stream API.

As more photographers contribute to Unsplash, discovering the perfect photo will be more challenging. Unsplash will use Stream Personalization to help give photos exposure that would otherwise never be seen. Our data science team will help tailor the machine learning exactly to their use cases.

Discovery will be improved through adding topic based feeds, more advanced aggregation and broadening the notification system. As the product evolves, the Stream API is a foundation that can be depended on to scale, transform and enhance feed user experiences.

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