How Tumblr became popular for being obsolete

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In 2013, when Jennifer Forward-Hayter was fourteen, she logged onto the social network Tumblr from the desktop computer of the family’s working farm in Dorset, England. The machine sat on a dark wooden desk in a hallway off the porch. “A good scenic English countryside,” she said. On the site, she looked GIFs and footage from the TV shows ‘Doctor Who’ and its spin-off ‘Torchwood’. Tumblr was Forward-Hayter’s main gateway to culture—its rural town had no museums, galleries, or art scene. (She is now a photographer in London.) In late 2016, when she left home for college, her use of Tumblr faded; there was a lot of cultural discussion to be found in art school. But during the first months of the pandemic, on a whim, she reconnected. “My dashboard” — Tumblr’s main feed — “was still weirdly active. People I used to follow a long time ago were still posting stuff, which I thought was really weird,” she told me. “I fell back into it pretty easily.” She has since been spending time on Tumblr every day, joining her regular social media rotation, alongside much more popular competitors Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Tumblr is a kind of Atlantis of social networks. Once prominent, innovative and brilliant, on par with any other social media company, it sank under the waves after undergoing several transfers of ownership in the 1920s. But it could rise again. Tumblr’s very status as an internet relic – easily forgotten, discreetly designed, more or less unchanged from a decade ago – makes it appealing to profligate users as well as new ones. Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio told me recently that forty-eight percent of its active users and sixty-one percent of its new users are Gen Z. That’s the same demographic as Facebook. and Instagram fear losing. According to the leaked Facebook Papers, the company now known as Meta estimates that teenage Facebook users are expected to drop by almost half over the next two years.

Tumblr was founded by David Karp and launched in New York in February 2007. (Facebook started in 2004 and Twitter in 2006.) It was designed to be a simple social blogging platform, but its multimedia approach sets it apart. Users could design their own home pages; publish text, images, GIFs, or videos; and follow a feed of others doing the same. Long before Instagram launched in 2010, Tumblr was a home for curated images. “It was just at a time when everyone was getting cell phones; “You can take a picture from your phone and post it to the Tumblr app,” said Sharon Butler, a painter who used Tumblr for her art blog, Two Coats of Paint. “You could have more text than on Twitter, but it was a cooler community than Facebook.”

The platform has become known as a petri dish of internet eccentricity, cultivating subcultures such as “bronies” (male fans of the “My Little Pony” cartoon) and “otherkin” (people who identify as non-human). In 2013, when Tumblr had seventy-three million accounts, Yahoo bought it for over a billion dollars. But, in 2016, the company wrote down seven hundred and twelve million dollars on the acquisition after Tumblr failed to grow its ad revenue. When Verizon acquired Yahoo in 2017, it consolidated Yahoo and Tumblr under parent company Oath. Another blow came when Tumblr issued a blanket ban on adult content — something it had become known for — in December 2018 and quickly lost thirty percent of its traffic. The following year, Automattic, the commercial arm of the WordPress content management system, acquired the site for a reported three million dollars. It was easy to assume that Tumblr was dead.

D’Onofrio, who joined the company as chief financial officer in 2013, became CEO in 2018 when founder Karp left. Tech companies often focus on anticipating the next disruption to their business model. They copy the competition and try to evolve as quickly as possible; hence, for example, Instagram’s addition of Snapchat-like stories and TikTok-like reels. D’Onofrio’s tenure, by contrast, was characterized by an unusual pursuit of preservation. “We don’t tell people how to behave, tell them what to do or how to behave here,” he said. (The ban on pornography remains an exception.) Other social networks have increasingly siled users into a small number of optimized content types: short texts, short videos, pre-made memes. Tumblr is more open, listing different possible post formats with icons at the top of its feed: text, photo, quote, link, chat, audio, video. It’s one of the few social networks where users can still post entries that look like blog posts.

Tumblr users I spoke to, new and old, cited a few outdated aspects that keep them using the platform. Tumblr’s main feed does not algorithmically shuffle posts based on what it deems a user might be interested in. It’s “a good old timeline river,” said Maryellen Stewart, a social media consultant who’s been keeping a Tumblr diary since 2014. (Despite the innocuous nature of her posts, Stewart sometimes gets caught in the filter of overly aggressive content.) Posts appearing in the feed are undated and many accounts are pseudonymous, creating respite from the frenetic exposure of other social media. Users said the platform felt disconnected from the “real world” – no president would ever try to shape world events with a Tumblr post. “It’s harder to be a brand” there, Karina Tipismana, a twenty-year-old student who uses the service mainly for her text jokes and “Succession” GIFs, said. “It’s the periphery of the Internet; nothing important happens there. There aren’t any influencers on Tumblr like there are on Instagram and TikTok, so the experience for all users could be a smoother one. Chris Black, the co-host of the “How Long Gone” podcast, has had a Tumblr account since 2010 and updates it daily. Titled Words for Young Men, it’s a preppy-punk mood board of starlets smoking cigarettes, fashion shots and designer objects, interspersed with everyday life shots of Black – a magazine lifestyle for one. Compared to the mainstream public mode on Instagram, Black’s Tumblr “is almost more personal, in a way, even if it’s not always pictures that I took,” he said.

D’Onofrio, the CEO, hopes to capitalize on users’ sense of intimacy with the platform. Rather than relying primarily on automated, programmatic ad sales, it pursues one-on-one campaigns with streaming giants such as Disney, Netflix and Amazon, which see opportunities in the site’s thriving enclaves of various fandoms. According to Tumblr, revenue has increased fifty-five percent since July 2021. Yet the company currently only sees about eleven million posts per day; Twitter, by comparison, is said to host five hundred million daily tweets. The goal is to maintain “the positivity that we’ve worked so hard to build here,” D’Onofrio said, adding, “It can’t be growth at all costs.”

I recently dug into my old Tumblr account, which I created in 2010 and stopped using years ago. Only three of the accounts I followed were still active, and I savored the silence. Where else on the internet do you only see a handful of posts a day? The site’s default dark blue-gray background is reminiscent of a bedroom at night, lit only by the glow of a screen. The best part was going through my own archives and realizing that the internet ephemera I gravitate towards have remained almost embarrassing over the past decade: abstract paintings, architectural photos, vintage video games, Wong Kar Wai stills. . In the hyper-pressurized environment of social media around 2022, it is rare to encounter a past digital self, unless it is unearthed to defame you. What makes Tumblr obsolete, for now, are the same things that give it lasting appeal. The fact that it retains a following should remind us that we use social media services by choice; no platform or feature is inevitable. As student Karina Tipismana told me, “People say things like, ‘I wish we could still use Tumblr.’ It’s there, it’s there!

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