Tumblr: the rise and fall of the microblogging site

Source: Flickr. All rights reserved.

What makes a blog easy to use? What attracts readers, viewers, creators? Is it free access? Its generative nature? Or, perhaps, the flexibility to create your own template by writing code through an open-source software? 

Well, look no further, because Tumblr has you covered! An American social networking and microblogging website founded in 2007 by David Karp, Tumblr has revolutionised the blogosphere.  

According to Brad L. Graham, a theatre publicist, the term ‘blogosphere’ comprises all blogs and their interconnections – implying that they coexist as a collection of connected communities in cyberspace (Graham, 1999, quoted in Axelrod, 2010). Quick (2002) defined it as a social networking service that allowed everyday agents to publish their opinions on the internet. 

Tumblr’s business model is based on personalisation and customisation. A business model, as argued by Mikhalkina and Cabantou (2015), refers to the sources and structures in a company’s operations that sanctions value. Tumblr allows users to alter their URLs to remove ‘[x].tumblr.com’ making it an excellent host website which is easily customisable and lets you write your own code for your blog. Due to this freedom of the open-source platform, multiple international businesses and public figures host their websites on Tumblr (Tumblr, 2020), and for the same reason, the social media website is set apart from competitor apps like Facebook and Twitter who only allow standardised profile pages that do not include options to switch between a focus on text or media or even include videos and .gif files permanently on display.

In theory, Tumblr consists of every facet required of a social media platform to succeed. And yet it has consistently turned up losses for every attempt to make the site profitable. This essay will provide a critical analysis of Tumblr and the ways in which it has transformed the microblogging industry. In the first section, this essay will situate the website historically and discuss its growth, partnerships, losses and profits. I will then examine its business model and internet ecology, finally focusing on the ways Tumblr changed the way people interact socially and culturally. 


What, precisely, is Tumblr though?

Tumblr is often thought of the first tumblelog platform to exist (Cosgrove, 2015). A tumblelog, or a microblog, is a blog that supports short-form mixed media content that is usually no more than one paragraph long; and this may include audio, quotes, links, images, or videos.

Image 1: Tumblr Homepage – Shania OBrien (2020)

As can be viewed in Image 1, as shown on the Tumblr homepage, the website is ‘blogs’ and it is ‘so easy to use that it’s hard to explain.’ The homepage is easy to navigate, with six dots on the left-hand side that take you through a mini-tour of what the website is about and how a new user can begin using it. These blogs are advertised to make it easy to ‘create interesting things’ and ‘put anything you want [t]here’ as it offers seven post types (text, photo, quote, link, chat, audio, and video). Home to 512 million blogs (Tumblr, 2020), Tumblr’s ‘about’ page boasts 14,040,116 posts at the time of writing in 18 languages.

Tumblr also offers the ability to “join millions of people in millions of communities across millions of #tags” (2020) which is directly related to danah boyd’s (2002) concept of “context collapse” which stands for the collapsing social boundaries between us and infinite possible audiences when we use social media. This is contrasted with the limited amount of people we may interact with on a daily basis, expanding our audience not only to celebrities and politicians but also to common people from the other side of the world who are all now at “zero distance” (boyd, 2002). 

The site was sold to Yahoo in 2013 for $1.1 Billion but has been notoriously known for being unprofitable. The Washington Post noted that Tumblr was sold in 2019 for merely $3 million to the site’s formal rival WordPress. In its early days, Tumblr stood strong at 3 billion impressions a month according to founder David Karp which led to them hiring a fashion director and sending bloggers to New York Fashion Week. Verizon acquired Yahoo in 2013, taking over Tumblr as well, only for it to finally be sold to a company called Automattic that owns WordPress. 

Many believe that a policy change is 2018 was the beginning of the site’s downfall which alienated its users and supporters. In December 2018, Tumblr introduced a nudity ban that included “photos, videos and GIFs of genitalia and female nipples, as well as any visual depictions of sex acts” (Edwards, 2011). 

Before that, Tumblr had been considered a “safe space for exploring identity” that was eliminated for marginalised peoples like LGBT communities found support. 

It is widely believed in the tech community that Tumblr is considered beleaguered with squandered potential, many mostly believe that it was destined to fall in the age of advertising-driven social media like Facebook.

So, then, what is in fact so wrong with Tumblr’s advertisements?

Advertisements – yes, this deserves a whole section 

To put it plainly, Tumblr’s advertisements are weird. There is no way explaining around this, except that it is hard for a user to discern how the marketing tool of “personal selling via personal relationships” (Flanigan and Obermier, 2016) when Tumblr’s ads include: 



Tumblr: surveillance, the sharing economy and sharing of posts

As with any social media platform, Tumblr users are vulnerable to surveillance. The site’s ‘reblog’ function ensures posts remain on people’s dashboards even after it has been deleted by the maker, or if the maker’s account has been deleted or deactivated. This affords us the responsibility for a permanence and iteration only writers, politicians, and other famous people used to have. 

Social media platforms have transformed the economics of our media as they have grown into multi-sided markets (Jullien, 2011). Affective participation, a term coined by Neal Thomas (2013) occurs when platforms are constantly available to us, and they encourage participation so much and so often that users enter states of flow and lose track of time. Further, all this activity results in the gathering of data – information about our ideas, interests, location, affiliations – that is monitored and tracked by Tumblr, to be made available to their advertising partners and clients, to be handed over to the government if required. 

Contemporary definitions of sharing have evolved. While Russell Belk (2010) once conceptualised it as a “form of consumption other than commodity exchange and gifting, based in mutual association [..] and caring relationships with others” wherein one expands their “extended self” and projects their identity onto the world (p. 724), this non-commodity form of sharing can be applied to the users of Tumblr if not the website itself. As the about page suggested, people use Tumblr to express their creativity and be themselves.

For example, digital comics and social media platforms have developed a close relationship. King (2020) argues that the post-internet age we live in, in which access to online information is “increasingly controlled by a small number of gatekeepers,” (p. 136) digital comic books are now produced and constructed with “digital technologies and consumed on digital interfaces” (p. 136) like Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. King states that these platforms have become the “primary means through which comics find their readers,” with Brundige (2015) expanding that this usually happens through social media campaign battles between comic book giants Marvel and DC. However, both Tumblr and its competitors fall short when it comes to comics, as Instagram is either “one potentially endless scroll or as individual images that you click through one at a time,” (King, 2020, p. 136) and Twitter does not allow for more than four images in one tweet. More interestingly, the age of the internet has turned the comic into a networked object, with the use of social media to distribute them not formally recognised as either a distinct medium or the organic progression of the print comic. 

Belk (2014) went on to redefine his definition of sharing to include “industrial models of collaborative consumption and short term rental” which can be connected to the sharing economy for its association with economic behaviour. 

Additionally, Tumblr has received a lot of backlash for copyright infringement issues. Even though the website accepts the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) take-down notices, it is very easy for users to simply re-upload the copyrighted content on another one of their blogs without payment or attribution. Artists and photographers have suffered a lot of losses by having their work reposted by accounts with more following. 


Activism, fake news, and the echo chamber

De Kosnik (2019) investigated McLuhan’s theory about new media and political participation, wherein she stated that inaction was a deliberate choice, and just as important as online activism. She calls McLuhan’s argument – which essentially states that the speed-up information facilitated by new technologies means that the public can now participate in activities it had only heard of from a distance before – technologically deterministic, as just because people can communicate faster doesn’t necessarily mean they will. De Kosnik argues that new media doesn’t lead to social movements, and when it seems like it does “as it did in the cases of #ArabSpring and #Occupy” (2019) is actually the users’ choice regarding how to use the platforms, rather than the platform itself (Tufekci, 2017). 

Noble (2018) argued that digital networks “can and do facilitate conservative and reactionary movements as they facilitate reformist and social justice movements,” citing instances of search engine algorithms reinforcing racism, fake news, and other forms of misinformation. Tumblr is not exempt from this, with every push toward large-scale social, economic, political, and cultural change comes surveillance, harassment, internet trolls, and violent threats. 

In fact, apologies to Marshall McLuhan but even though social media may allow more users access to more information than has ever been shared before – the way in which it is structured ensures that users are likely to primarily access information that reinforces existing beliefs, creating the effect of an echo chamber (Pierson, 2014, cited in De Kosnik, 2019). 


Tumblr Ecosystem Map


Tumblr is a rare platform. Despite half a billion users, the site has managed to be so unprofitable that each blog – including those owned by celebrities and other famous personalities – are worth less than $0. But surprisingly, Tumblr’s success does not come from its revenue like other social media platforms. It offers a purely unique experience of anonymity and access to myriads of content about almost absolutely anything. Tumblr has revolutionised the social media experience, but not in ways that can be easily capitalised on.

It reminds me of this text post I saw and screenshotted months ago:

Source: sketiana.tumblr.com / Shania OBrien’s dashboard

Nothing makes it more apparent that no matter what Tumblr’s business model is, how much it is worth, or who its competitors are, the Tumblr experience will (at least in its current form) never be tainted by notions that have consumed other apps like microcelebrity and Instagram.



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