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Tumblr Tumbles On

Looking back on Tumblr’s past and the platform’s future

By Entertainment, Featured

Illustration by Meghan Sim

You’re bored. So, you open your phone to go to your social media dopamine-dispenser of choice. Instagram is for the baddies and the artists and creating a highly manicured perfect image of one’s life. TikTok is the ultimate happy-chemical hit distraction. If you’re really old-school, you’ll open Facebook. But we all know that if you’re queer, dysfunctional, and terminally online, you go to Tumblr.

The general public often thinks Tumblr, the infamous blogging social media platform, is dead, resting in an online graveyard next to MySpace and Vine. But Tumblr’s heartbeat is strong. 

Launched in 2007, Tumblr’s real heyday was in the early 2010s, with a slow decline after 2014 when the site was bought by Yahoo for $1 billion. 

The decline turned into a nosedive with the porn ban of 2018, which alienated a large portion of the site’s user base. The filters brought on to enforce the ban flagged and took down many inoffensive posts, while porn bots continued to thrive. Traffic crashed. Tumblr had always housed a thriving queer community, and that community felt targeted by the 2018 porn ban as “adult content” was banned. Many users didn’t know where else to go. The platform, a safe space for this community, felt less safe. 

Automattic, a software developer, bought the platform from Yahoo for just $3 million in 2019. Automattic had hopes to turn the platform around, restoring it to its former glory and planning to add (now-reviled) features to the platform. 

However, in November 2023, a memo from the desk of Matt Mullengwig, CEO of Automattic, was leaked. The memo spoke of the lack of progress in Tumblr engagement by Automattic: “We are at the point where after 600+ person-years of effort put into the Tumblr acquisition since 2019, we have not gotten the expected results from our effort, which was to have its revenue and usage above its previous peaks,” wrote Mullenwig.

After years of toying with Tumblr, Automattic was admitting defeat. The company planned to pull back staff and try a more user-dynamic approach. 

While the site has been unable to live up to its former glory in more recent years, the user base is thriving. Tumblr is the origin of many internet-renowned memes, including Goncharov, Canon Destiel, Horse Plinko, Blorbo, Dracula Daily, to name a few. This is to say nothing of the thriving shit-post community that continues to churn out content that is reposted to social media sites everywhere.  

On Tumblr, the main way one interacts with other users is reblogs, which are similar to X (formerly Twitter) retweets. On Tumblr, you can stack reblogs and create reblog chains, which makes the site different from algorithm-driven social media. A core part of the ecosystem is digging up old posts to reblog them again, extending old chains, and reviving old jokes.

This model is undeniably unique and interesting, so why has Tumblr been flailing since its sale to Yahoo? Tumblr’s failure stems from a misunderstanding of what users want and how they use the platform. It’s an unintentional tradition for Tumblr’s user base to dismiss any and every update. And while yes, this tradition turns every user into an elderly person shaking their fist at the teenagers on their lawn, the complaining is never entirely without reason.

Take Exhibit A: Tumblr Live. The live-streaming service was introduced in November 2022 in an attempt to foster new ways for users to interact, and parallel features on other social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

However, the addition of Tumblr Live represents a core misunderstanding of the Tumblr user base.

This is a group that values anonymity and the written word. Tumblr was founded on blogging; and also on essays and terrible puns, stories and barely-strung-together thoughts. Instagram is about likes, TikTok is about views, and Tumblr is about sharing. 

Tumblr Live was disliked and ignored by users for many reasons, but the really damning feature was users’ inability to turn it off. Tumblr’s app interface was significantly changed by a feature users didn’t want and weren’t going to use. Eventually, Tumblr created a temporary snooze option, where users could silence Tumblr Live for a week, at which point it would be erased from your interface entirely. This wasn’t enough for users, who complained that one should be able to completely disable the feature instead of only temporarily ignoring it. 

Exhibit B: the “twitterification” of the desktop interface,  whose rearranged buttons and menus have been rearranged to mimic other social media sites for no conceivable reason.

The mobile app has also continued to have issues with crashing and bugs, despite its popularity. The desktop site isn’t much better, but most users augment their experience with third-party programs such as XKit, which can’t be applied to mobile apps. 

Exhibit C was by far the most despised. In June 2023, Tumblr drastically changed the way users interacted with reblogs,the very thing that makes the site unique.  

There was widespread outcry. Vitriol was so intense that Tumblr scrambled to revert the change back soon after it was implemented.

Automattic also tried new monetization methods such as implementing an ad-free subscription, the badge shop, and selling real physical Tumblr merch. While these new monetization strategies didn’t fail, they weren’t nearly as productive as Automattic needed them to be.

The changes made in fall 2023 contributed to an angry user base and gate-kept new users from joining, while failing to make Tumblr sufficiently economic.

But with Mullenweg’s leaked memo came new hope for the site. Mullenweg stated in another post that Automattic is going to concentrate on changes that users want and begin to shut down things that don’t work, such as Tumblr Live, which was permanently removed as of January 2023.

This is exactly what the site needs. Since 2014, Tumblr has suffered from a disconnection between the site and its users, the quirky foundation the platform stands on. 

Things are looking up. Tumblr continues to survive, trading owners and changing for better or worse. Through pandemics, political changes, and fandom upheaval, Tumblr continues to be there. And rest assured, when you die, Tumblr will still be there to crab rave on your grave.

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