Deconstructing the Doomed Yahoo, Tumblr Romance

By Laurel Sutton

June 6, 2013

This blog originally appeared in Fast Company.

Ah, Tumblr, home to a million fandoms, animated GIFs, and journeys of self-discovery by teenage girls. I’m not saying this as an insult–I’m actually quite impressed by how Tumblr became the go-to microblogging platform for these very specific communities. (The name Tumblr, or “tumblr” as it’s properly written, is a variant of the word “tumblelog,” another word for mixed-media microblogging. You’re welcome.)

Did I mention the porn? There’s an awful lot of it on Tumblr, from GIFs lifted from professional porn movies to explicit art to smutty fanfic. It’s the kind of stuff you might have found on LiveJournal once upon a time, before they were bought and sold, added lots of advertising, were bought and sold again, and then suspended hundreds of accounts and communities—causing core users to leave in droves. It’s no surprise that most ended up on Tumblr, where anything goes and it takes just one click to pass around dirty GIFs.

Yahoo has promised that it won’t screw up Tumblr, that it will keep running it as an independent company. But that proclamation is being met with a lot of skepticism, in no small part due to the amazing mismatch of brands between Yahoo and Tumblr. Just think about it:

Yahoo: Old, out of touch, clueless when it comes to social media and Internet trends. Look what they did to Flickr, Delicious, and even poor Geocities.

Tumblr: Young, lightning-fast, crazy, pop culture-centric with a healthy dose of smut. An awful lot of its core users were born after Yahoo was founded.

What does Tumblr stand to gain from Yahoo, aside from making founder David Karp a billionaire? If anything, the Tumblr brand–its culture–reveled in its status as the chaotic home of outsiders. That’s the polar opposite of Yahoo. Yahoo, of course, would like to monetize Tumblr as quickly as possible, but how can they do that without compromising the brand? Tumblr is emphatically not about advertising. If anything, the culture is anti-advertising and pro-freedom of information (Read: We’re not afraid to violate IP rights, infringe copyrights, and share illegal torrents). If Tumblr is like a speedboat, jumping waves and making tight turns, then Yahoo is the transatlantic steamship that takes hours to change course.

Yahoo would love David Karp to sprinkle a little of his hipster magic on its brand and teach them how to talk to the kids these days. Yahoo, as a brand and as a service, is essentially meaningless to Tumblr’s users, since they use Google for searching and mail and get all their news from Twitter or Reddit. If the folks at Yahoo really think Tumblr is going to make them cool again, they’re high.

In fact, chances are good that users will leave Tumblr in droves, alarmed by the rumored avalanche of advertising and the potential crackdown on content. LiveJournal users didn’t have any qualms about going to Dreamwidth and Tumblr; Flickr users bounced to Instagram and back again; and is there anybody left on MySpace? Anyone?

Where will they go from Tumblr? A sizeable contingent of users has moved to WordPress, where there is more perceived freedom, although the actual content limits of WP have yet to be tested. And if not WordPress, another microblogging service will undoubtedly spring up to take Tumblr’s place. Maybe that will be Karp’s next project, when his buyout tenure at Yahoo is done.

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