What does Yahoo's purchase of Tumblr mean for the site—and its users?
Tumblr's co-founder David Karp once said the best thing about dropping out of high school at 15 to work for The Powerpuff Girls studio was getting to act like an adult, "wearing what the twentysomethings were wearing in the office—collared shirts and rolled-up sleeves." Over the weekend, Yahoo's board of director's approved a $1.1 billion bid to buy microblogging site Tumblr, fulfilling Karp's lifelong fantasy of fitting into a grown-up role.
And with Yahoo’s purchase, Tumblr is essentially opening its userbase to advertisers as a volunteer army of telemarketers.
Founded in 2005 after the then 19-year-old Karp discovered the idea of "tumblelogs" such as Christian Neukirchen's Anarchaia, Tumblr was meant to free blogs from having to use walls of text to communicate by using a combination of images, links to other stories, and videos as a new way to glimpse the flowing psyche behind linguistic pomp. After a private beta, the tool was released to the public in early 2007 and by the end of the year it had been valued at $3 million. A few years later, its value had grown to almost 400 times that freshman sum.
Tumblr's rapid growth can be seen as a reaction to the parallel growth of the Internet as a retail environment, with nearly every use underwritten by advertising. In the years of Tumbr's existence, Internet advertising revenues have more than doubled from less than $4 billion to more than $8.4 billion.
As banner ads, sidebar promotions, and pop-up commercials became more familiar, Tumblr turned into a de facto shelter, where people could cull what they wanted and share it with a network of followers who could choose to identify as anything they wanted.
Throughout its rapid rise, from 75,000 blogs in its first few weeks to the 107.8 million it claims today, Tumblr has never made as much money as it cost to operate. It spent between $4 and $5 million a month as of late 2012, while only earning $14 million for the year. But the company was able to get new rounds of investors to support it on the faith that an audience that big would have to be worth something to someone.
And so advertising became an inevitable part of the company's strategy. The model relies on its users, with only content that's interesting enough to reblog being of value to advertisers. The optimal Tumblr advertising campaign, Karp explained to The New York Times, is "intended to make you feel something for the brand."
This opaque observation could be said of any advertising, but the underlying implication is that a Tumblr user who's been made to feel a sudden emotional attachment to a brand through a video or captioned image will then act on that emotion. They don't have to go out and buy a new bottle of cologne or go test drive a new car, they just have to turn over their blog to the brand. In return, the brand promises to try and make their propaganda as tasteful and convincing as possible.
And with Yahoo’s purchase, Tumblr is essentially opening its userbase to advertisers as a volunteer army of telemarketers. As with Google's AdSense and YouTube's payments to users with the requisite pageviews, Tumblr will incentivize this tastemaking lottery with the bait of user payments. Everyone without a big-enough following swims in a kind of internship lagoon, waiting to impress enough people to earn a tastemaking cubicle of one's own.
It's easy to get trapped by the seeming inevitability of advertising footing the bill for every meaningful exchange people have over the Internet, pushed for by investors and boards looking for more "growth" to inject into purple dinosaurs like Yahoo.
But it's also possible that something built to open up new ways of communicating online could have carried on as an open-source project supported by donations and user-built updates, all while connected to a number of hosting options. In objective terms, this approach would have given the platform far greater flexibility, and made it an even more creative tool than it already is.
Yet, we live in a culture where ideas that make sense in the rush of an adolescent moment need to be held on to and evolved by their originators, all driven toward the same end of making money so they can keep an office for status and have a wardrobe that says "grown-up." With Internet advertising starting to become interchangeable with any other content on sites like The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, and Gawker, the last remaining frontier is not the media proper, but the audience.
Platforms like Tumblr are becoming less like shelters and more like traps designed to build a workforce of unpaid marketers who'll eventually be used as collateral to keep the dream of living in the adult world alive for a little while longer.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.