News broke last week that Automattic, the parent company of WordPress, purchased alternative blogging site Tumblr from Verizon.
When I first heard that Tumblr had been sold, for a fraction of a second, I was surprised it was still around.
Tumblr started out as an alternative to WordPress. Its creator, David Karp, told .net magazine back in 2011 that he set out to build the service because long-form, traditional editorial of existing blogging platforms wasn’t for him:
“I had all these cool videos, links and projects that I wanted to put out there, and I had a really hard time doing it.”
WordPress, and other sites like Blogger, handle videos and links fairly easily, I always found. But some, like Karp, don’t seem to have that perception.
His intention, he said, was not to compete with WordPress, which he praised for what it does, but to simply offer something different.
For a while, it worked. And it worked quite well, in fact.
Tumblr launched in 2007. Yahoo purchased it for a whopping $1.1 billion in 2013. Verizon purchased Yahoo and inherited Tumblr four years later.
But no one seemed to know what to do with it.
Tumblr’s first major problem wasn’t its success among creators.
As The Washington Post pointed out, the draw for something new — not necessarily better — drew plenty of users. It attracted popular bloggers, musicians, photographers and writers. It even picked up fans in the world of fashion.
In early 2010, Tumblr touted 100 million monthly impressions. By the end of that year, that figure jumped thirty-fold.
The problem was porn. Some of it, one could argue, was artistic nudity rather than actual sexual content. But let’s be fair: a good bit of it was just plain adult content.
Adult content primarily includes photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts.
The policy did provide exceptions: “exposed female-presenting nipples in connection with breastfeeding, birth or after-birth moments, and health-related situations, such as post-mastectomy or gender confirmation surgery. Written content such as erotica, nudity related to political or newsworthy speech, and nudity found in art, such as sculptures and illustrations.”
The plan was to notify people whose content had been flagged as adult and eventually switch those accounts to “private.”
This was certainly a better alternative than AOL’s long-defunct blogging platform, AOL Journals’ idea, which was apparently to permanently delete all graphics from a user’s account when there was a complaint about just one of them.
Apple received some of the blame for that decision. Apple dropped the Tumblr app from its App Store after child pornography had been discovered on the site.
That porn had apparently slipped through the cracks in the algorithm. That’s the problem with algorithms: things always slip through the cracks. Sometimes, the algorithm treats things that don’t violate policy like they do.
So what’s next for Tumblr and its community?
If they’re hoping for the return of porn, it appears they’re out of luck.
Matt Mullenweg, who owns Automattic and WordPress.com, says the nudity ban will stay. In a podcast from The Verge, he said he wants to “create a place on the web, which is fun and supportive and substantial.”
He referred back to a time when he said blogging had “a real magic to it:”
You’d have blog rolls and links and people would follow and comment and you’d keep up with things and it was a really, really nice social network. But it also was totally distributed and people had their own designs, and all those sorts of things. I think we can bring some of that back and reimagine it in the mobile world which is where Tumblr is also super strong.
I think Tumblr is much better off in the hands of a company that has mastered blogging. It’s better served there than in the hands of a corporate parent who has nothing to do with blogging.
The main threat any such platform faces is budget cuts from a corporate parent. At least in this case, the corporate gets blogging. They may well understand it better than anyone else.
I never felt temptation to leave AOL, Blogger or WordPress for Tumblr. But I’d be much more confident in Tumblr’s future as a property of WordPress.