In 2013, when Jennifer Forward-Hayter was 14, she was logging into the social network Tumblr from a desktop computer on her family’s working farm in Dorset, England. The machine sat on a dark wooden desk in a hall outside the balcony. “Scenic English countryside proper,” she said. At the site, she was looking GIFs and images from the TV shows “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood” branching out from it. Tumblr was the Forward-Hayter’s main access to culture – her country town had no museums, galleries, or art scene. (She is now a photographer in London.) In late 2016, when she left her home to attend university, her Tumblr use stopped; There were a lot of cultural discussions to be found in the art school. But during the pandemic’s early months, on a whim, she’s back again. “My dashboard” – Tumblr main feed – “was still strangely active. It told me that people I had followed for a long time were still posting stuff, which I thought was very strange.” “I fell for it quite easily.” Since then, she’s spent time on Tumblr every day. It has rejoined its regular circulation of social media, along with its more popular competitors such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Tumblr is something like Atlantis for social networks. Once prominent, innovative and bright, on par with any other social media company, it sank under the waves as it underwent several ownership transfers in the 1920s. But it may rise again. Tumblr’s very prestige as an Internet relic — easy to forget, unremarkably designed, and somewhat unchanged in a decade ago — makes it appealing to wayward users as well as new ones. Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio recently told me that 48% of its active users and 61% of its new users are Generation Z. These are the same demographics that Facebook and Instagram are worried about missing out on. According to leaked Facebook papers, the company now known as Meta estimates that teenage Facebook users are likely to decline by nearly half in the next two years.
Tumblr was founded by David Karp and launched in New York City, in February of 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 can design their own home pages; post text, photos, GIFs or videos; And follow feeds from others doing the same. Long before Instagram launched, in 2010, Tumblr was the home of curated photos. “It was true at a time when everyone had cell phones; you can take a picture from your phone and post it on the Tumblr app,” said Sharon Butler, an illustrator who used Tumblr on her art blog, Two Coats of Paint. from Twitter, but it was a much more amazing community than Facebook.”
The platform has become known as the Petri dish from the weirdness of the internet, breeding subcultures such as “bronies” (male fans of the “My Little Pony” cartoon) and “otherkin” (people considered non-human). In 2013, when Tumblr had seventy-three million accounts, Yahoo acquired it for more than $1 billion. But in 2016, the company wrote off seven hundred and twelve million dollars on the acquisition after Tumblr failed to increase ad revenue. When Verizon acquired Yahoo, in 2017, Yahoo and Tumblr combined under parent company Oath. Another blow came when Tumblr issued a blanket ban on adult content – something it’s known for – in December 2018 and immediately lost thirty percent of its traffic. The following year, Automattic, the commercial arm of the WordPress content management system, acquired the site for $3 million. It was easy to assume that Templar was dead.
D’Onofrio, who joined the company as CFO 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 develop as quickly as possible; Hence, for example, Instagram has added Snapchat-like Stories and TikTok-like Reels. By contrast, D’Onofrio’s tenure was marked by an extraordinary quest for preservation. He said, “We don’t tell people how to behave, we don’t tell them what to do or how to behave here.” (Banning pornography remains an exception.) Other social networks have increasingly isolated users in a small number of enhanced content types: short texts, short videos, and pre-made memes. Tumblr is more open, showing several possible post formats with icons at the top of its feed: text, image, quote, link, chat, audio, video. It is one of the few social networks where users can still post entries that look like blog posts.
The Tumblr users I spoke to, both new and returning, pointed out some not-so-fashionable aspects of their use of the platform. The Tumblr main feed doesn’t shuffle posts based on what it determines might appeal to the user. It’s “a good river and an old chronology,” said Marilyn Stewart, a social media consultant who has kept a diary on Tumblr since 2014. (Despite the soothing nature of her posts, Stewart sometimes gets stuck in the excessive content filter.) The posts that appear in the feed are undated, and many of the accounts are pseudonyms, creating a respite from the frantic exposure of other social media. Users spoke of the platform’s feeling of detachment from the “real world” – no president would attempt to shape world events with a Tumblr post. ‘It’s Hard to Be a Brand’ There Karina Tepesmana, a twenty-year-old student who uses the service primarily for text jokes and ‘succession’ GIFs, he said. “It’s the ocean of the internet; nothing important is going on there.” There are no influencers on Tumblr as there are on Instagram and TikTok, and the experience for all users may be more enjoyable as a result. Chris Black, co-host of the podcast “How Long Gone” has maintained a Tumblr account since 2010 and updates it daily. Titled Words for Young People, it’s a mood board of celebs smoking cigarettes, fashion photography snippets, and design stuff, punctuated by Black’s own photos from Everyday Life – one person’s lifestyle magazine. Compared to the public confrontation mode prevalent on Instagram, Black’s Tumblr is “almost more personal, in a way, although it’s not always the pictures I’ve taken,” he said.
D’Onofrio, CEO, hopes to capitalize on users’ sense of intimacy with the platform. Rather than rely primarily on automated, automated ad sales, it pursues individual campaigns with streaming giants like Disney, Netflix and Amazon, which see opportunities in the site’s burgeoning pockets of many audiences. According to Tumblr, revenue is up 55 percent since July of 2021. However, the company currently only sees about 11 million posts per day. For comparison, Twitter is said to host five hundred million tweets per day. D’Onofrio said the goal is to maintain “the positivity we’ve worked so hard to build here,” adding, “It can’t be growth at any cost.”
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 enjoyed the silence. Where else on the internet do you see only a few posts per day? The site’s dark blue-gray default background calls for a bedroom at night lit only by the glow of the screen. The best part was digging through my own archives and realizing that the ephemeral internet I’ve been drawn to has remained roughly embarrassingly consistent over the past decade: abstract paintings, architecture portraits, vintage video games, Wong Kar Wai stills. In the highly stressful environment of social media around 2022, it’s rare to come across a former digital character, unless they are mined to discredit you. What makes Tumblr obsolete, right now, are the same things that give it its enduring appeal. The fact that it maintains the following should remind us that we use social media services by choice; No platform or feature is a must. As student Karina Tibismana told me, “People say things like, ‘I wish we could still use Tumblr. “He’s there, he’s there!”