Essays on Technology and Culture

Tumblr’s Victory

If you haven’t heard, you’ve been living under a rock, or you don’t follow stuff on the Internet. In either case, I have to wonder how you got to be reading this. The big news is that Tumblr, the easy-to-use blogging platform that hosts hundreds of millions of blogs, has been purchased by Yahoo! for the sum of $1.1 billion dollars, a sum worthy of Dr. Evil. It’s an interesting development, because Tumblr is the service that has done more to help the average user build a presence on the web since Geocities—a free web site hosting service that was also bought by Yahoo!, and then shut down. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the worry of anyone but the most paranoid.

More than a mere victory for a service that has struggled to monetize despite a huge audience, it’s also a vindication of user-generated content services that do more than social networks. Twitter, Facebook, et al give you a place to communicate, with people, but you have to do it on their terms: a 140 character limit, “likes”, coerced public posting, and ads based on your “interests”. [1] What makes Tumblr so successful, from a user-adoption standpoint, is that it’s easy to set up and use, has good discovery tools, and precious few restrictions. Tumblr is very much a blank slate, allowing almost full customizability of the profile, and open posting of content. The only real limits are a ban on porn videos, which may be for bandwidth reasons, and actual illegal content. No other service gives you so much for so little effort. It’s a testament to the brilliance of David Karp, who has been smartly retained by Yahoo! for the next four years, that Tumblr has been so widely adopted by geeks and non-geeks alike. If you want to have a real presence on the Internet—not just a profile—you can sign up for Tumblr, for free, and start posting almost anything inside of five minutes.

The Internet is that its a vacuum that demands to be filled with something. With the endless human desire to make things, modify and recombine things, and share things, a service like Tumblr is not only a good idea, it is a necessity. Reducing the amount of friction between someone wanting to share a picture, a video, or anything else they desire, with the world—or just an audience of their friends—is a worthwhile endeavor. Yahoo! has freed Karp, and Tumblr, from those things preventing it from progressing in this mission. They can pay off their investors, hire more engineers, and keep the braintrust behind the service comfortable, so they can focus on the product and not where the next round of funding will come from. It’s really the best thing that could have happened to Tumblr, and by extension, the Internet as a medium of creative expression.

For those who are upset that Tumblr has “sold out,” the opportunity now exists for someone to try and improve on Tumblr’s model. Someone out there has the potential to something better, faster, easier and more compelling than Tumblr, and the cycle will start anew. When the time comes, the people behind that project should be handsomely rewarded as well.

  1. I’m aware Tumblr, under Yahoo!’s stewardship, will likely be monetizing with, yes, ads. I imagine, however, it will work on a different model than Twitter or Facebook, because Tumblr is so open-ended that it would be difficult to nail down hard targets for advertising. Please correct me if I’m wrong.  ↩