How Will Tumblr Earn Its Price Tag?

The day after news of Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr broke, I was sitting in a cafe in Greenwich Village. At the table next to me was a gallery owner conducting interviews with recent NYU graduates for a social media intern position at his gallery (the position, it goes without saying, was going to be unpaid). While talking one candidate’s ear off for 45 minutes about his “vision” for his gallery’s nascent tumblr, the gallery owner said something like this: “So think of Tumblr as the hub of everything that you’re doing. Now you have to keep it short, because on Tumblr, you only have a certain amount of time, maybe three or four lines, to grab people’s attention, and then you have to get off. So it’s about capturing, you know, the viewpoint of the gallery as you see it.”

Three or four lines? As annoying as this guy was, he’s probably right. Tumblr is a visually-minded community. It’s not that long-form pieces can’t do well on Tumblr. It’s just that, as with so much else on the Internet, people prefer to be entertained in small doses: photos, gifs, videos, lists. (As a bonus to people like this gallery owner, in this world, social media worker bees can arguably get more done in less time, casting a wide net across the social media landscape instead of spending three hours working on one thing.)

You only have to look at the popularity of list-type articles on this site to see how much people appreciate easily digestible content. Why? Well, most of us are either sitting at work, or in class, or procrastinating on a job search, and don’t have time to read 2000-word personal essays (thank you to all the people who do make the time to read our 2000-word personal essays). The second reason is that the tools that we use to find these bits of mirth have created a more fractured online experience anyway; our phones and computers have conditioned us to tolerate less time on a given activity before we compulsively flit on to the next. The tools themselves are competing for our attention, not just the media disseminated by those tools. So the so-called “content producers” like the poor gallery intern are forced to “make it quick,” whatever “it” is. It’s probably going to be a photo — and not because this gallery’s tumblr is an art blog, but because photos are what Tumblr users want to (have time to) see.

The initial New York Times article about the Tumblr purchase mentioned, in a line that has since been eliminated from the online version of the article, that owning Tumblr would help Yahoo because Tumblr could perhaps “provide user-generated content” to the struggling former Internet search titan. This set off alarm bells for me and probably countless other Tumblr users. But really, it’s pretty laughable when you think about it. We are not going to be sources of content for Yahoo in any meaningful or organized way, so much as we’re going to be eyeballs, meaning potential consumers. That’s alarming, too — or rather, annoying.

Now that this has happened, more of us are going to question whether Tumblr is the right place for our content, whatever that content might be. But I have been wondering this for some time. I continue to host my two blogs — my professional website and a blog about running — on Tumblr, and I would say the main motivation is that, well, everyone seems to be there. The second motivation is that Tumblr’s design templates are far prettier than anything you can find on other popular hosts like Blogspot, Typepad or WordPress, and I know enough coding to be able to improve a little upon the standard Tumblr designs.

But Tumblr, to me, feels like a restrictive matrix more than any other social media platform with the exception of Twitter. We are confined by Tumblr’s “rules.” You must categorize a post as a certain type of media, though that post can also include other types of media in it (which can get tedious). At first I enjoyed this. It seems so organized, so easy. Each type of post gets its own colored button. But then there’s the other rule: you must view a chronological stream of the other tumblrs you follow on your dashboard every time you go to the homepage, the only way around this being to follow zero other tumblrs.

A few months ago the writer Tyler Coates, an early adopter of Tumblr, wrote, with clear relief, that he had decided to unfollow everyone on Tumblr “again,” as he put it. This was viewed as a good thing for his sanity, and I’m sure a lot of people can relate to his decision. The assumption is that without the dashboard stream, your own output on Tumblr improves in quality. Not following anyone else eliminates one source of workday distraction, for one, but it also guarantees that your blog posts won’t be reactive — responding to something you saw on your dashboard — and that they’ll be more considered.

Because if we’re following other bloggers on Tumblr, I think we start to see our own work as just one of many, one of millions — lost in the shuffle. Because of the volume of material a person is faced with whenever they log in to Tumblr, dependent of course on how many blogs you follow, I think we feel pressure to post something that will get noticed. What’s the quickest way to get noticed? A photo.

I think we often compromise our creativity in order to fit into the Tumblr matrix, just as we compromise our creativity to fit into Twitter’s 140-character limit. Pair this with Yahoo’s coming influence on Tumblr, which may or may not be significant, and you have a suddenly unstable community not all that different from MySpace in the days when Facebook started to emerge as a less cluttered (and then ad-free) alternative. If Tumblr’s users flee, where will they go? It doesn’t really matter. They’ll go where the ads aren’t, until the ads appear there, and then they’ll go somewhere else, ad infinitum, no pun intended. I don’t think there’s any long-term savior in the social media landscape. There are just continually new, innocent companies that don’t yet feel the pressure to make their investors happy — the type of pressure Tumblr has felt acutely for the past two years.

The Yahoo purchase is exciting for David Karp and the other Tumblr employees. They’ve created a beautiful, easy-to-use product so much sleeker and more forward-thinking than any other blog platform out there (I think this continues to be the case, but if you know any better blog platforms, comment below). They deserve to be rewarded for their hard work. And by acquiring Tumblr, Yahoo doesn’t just get to move into the 21st century, it gets to utilize all the talents on the Tumblr roster. (And by acquiring it for the insane sum of $1.1 billion, Yahoo gets to generate more buzz around its very bland self.) But the Tumblr roster should be more valuable in the long run for Yahoo than simply owning Tumblr, as long as they don’t screw it up. In terms of design and usability, Yahoo has been a mess for years. The Tumblr staff could certainly help with this.

But Tumblr needs help. Or rather, it needed help. Now you could say it’s gone to the dogs and that it doesn’t really matter what happens to it. Tumblr has a revenue target of $100 million this year, according to the New York Times, and only reported revenue of $13 million in the first quarter of this year. It doesn’t help that Yahoo has a “notorious reputation,” in the words of the Times, “for paying big money for start-ups and then letting the prizes wither.” The current revenue model of the reigning big three — Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr — is to intersperse “sponsored posts” into its users’ feeds. The ads are sometimes suspiciously catered to whatever information these sites knows about you, such as that you’re engaged to be married or live in Chicago. But often they’re not catered to you at all, which can be infuriating. None of these sites is really thinking outside of the box (feed) here. They are simply throwing spaghetti at their hundred-million-strong wall of users and seeing what sticks.

Part of the challenge, then, may actually lie in the considerable size of the Tumblr audience. How do you harness 134 million global users? How do you properly — and, dare I say it, thoughtfully — cater advertising to each of those people, or to the people who you find most “valuable”? MySpace’s method was to strike a three-year deal with Google Ads, which imperiled the site, slowing it down and cluttering up the user experience. That move made Facebook seem like a safe little cove by comparison.

When your audience is this big, how can you really “know” it? Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said in a conference call this past Monday that the two companies will stay “focused on advertising that is as good as the content itself and is seamless with the experience.” That sounds promising, and there are plenty of smaller Web entities that succeed at this (I wrote about one of my favorites, the beauty blog Into the Gloss, here). But the keyword there is smaller. Since Yahoo and Tumblr made their announcement, I think many of my fellow Tumblr users are pining for the days when Tumblr was just that. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

image – Marco Arment 

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