How Tumblr Became Popular for Being Obsolete


In 2013, when Jennifer Forward-Hayter was fourteen, she would log onto the social network Tumblr from the desktop computer in her family’s working farmhouse in Dorset, England. The machine sat on a dark wooden desk in a hall off the porch. “Proper picturesque English countryside,” she said. On the site, she would look at GIFs and images from the TV shows “Doctor Who” and its spinoff “Torchwood.” Tumblr was Forward-Hayter’s main access to culture—her rural town had no museums, galleries, or art scene. (She is now a photographer in London.) In late 2016, when she left home for university, her Tumblr use trailed off; there was plenty of cultural discussion to be found at art school. But during the early months of the pandemic, on a whim, she logged back on. “My dashboard”—the main Tumblr feed—“was still weirdly active. People I followed a long time ago were still posting stuff, which I thought was very strange,” she told me. “I fell back into it quite easily.” Since then, she has spent time on Tumblr every day. It has rejoined her regular rotation of social media, alongside its much more popular competitors Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Tumblr is something like an Atlantis of social networks. Once prominent, innovative, and shining, on equal footing with any other social-media company, it sank under the waves as it underwent several ownership transfers in the twenty-tens. But it might be rising once more. Tumblr’s very status as a relic of the Internet—easily forgotten, unobtrusively designed, more or less unchanged from a decade ago—is making it appealing to prodigal users as well as new ones. Tumblr’s C.E.O., Jeff D’Onofrio, told me recently that forty-eight per cent of its active users and sixty-one per cent of its new ones are Generation Z. That’s the same demographic that Facebook and Instagram are concerned about losing. According to the leaked Facebook Papers, the company now known as Meta estimates that teen-age Facebook users are likely to drop by almost half in the next two years.

Tumblr was founded by David Karp and launched in New York City, in February of 2007. (Facebook began in 2004 and Twitter in 2006.) It was built to be a simple, social blogging platform, but its multimedia approach set it apart. Users could design their own home pages; post text, images, GIFs, or videos; and follow a feed of others doing the same. Long before Instagram launched, in 2010, Tumblr was a home for curated imagery. “It was right at a time when everyone was getting cell phones; “you could take a picture from your phone and post it on the Tumblr app,” Sharon Butler, a painter who used Tumblr for her art blog, Two Coats of Paint, said. “You could have more text than on Twitter, but it was a cooler community than Facebook.”

The platform became known as a petri dish of Internet quirkiness, cultivating subcultures such as “bronies” (male fans of the cartoon “My Little Pony”) and “otherkin” (people who identify as non-human). In 2013, when Tumblr had seventy-three million accounts, Yahoo acquired it for more than a billion dollars. But, in 2016, the company did a writedown of seven hundred and twelve million dollars on the acquisition after Tumblr failed to grow advertising revenue. When Verizon acquired Yahoo, in 2017, it bundled Yahoo and Tumblr under the parent company Oath. Another blow came when Tumblr issued a blanket ban on adult content—something it had become known for—in December of 2018 and promptly lost thirty per cent of its traffic. The next year, Automattic, the commercial arm of the content-management system WordPress, acquired the site for a reported three million dollars. It was easy to assume that Tumblr was dead.

D’Onofrio, who joined the company as C.F.O. in 2013, became C.E.O. in 2018, when Karp, the founder, departed. Tech companies often focus on anticipating the next disruption to their business model. They copy the competition and attempt to evolve as quickly as possible; hence, for instance, Instagram’s addition of Snapchat-like Stories and TikTok-like Reels. D’Onofrio’s tenure, by contrast, has been characterized by an unusual pursuit of preservation. “We’re not telling people how to behave, not telling them what to do or how to comport themselves here,” he said. (The pornography ban remains an exception.) Other social networks have increasingly siloed users into a small number of optimized content types: short texts, brief videos, pre-made memes. Tumblr is more open-ended, listing various possible post formats with icons at the top of its feed: text, photo, quote, link, chat, audio, video. It’s one of the few social networks where users can still publish entries that resemble blog posts.

The Tumblr users I spoke to, both new and returning, cited a few unfashionable aspects that keep them using the platform. Tumblr’s main feed doesn’t shuffle posts algorithmically based on what it determines might appeal to a user. It’s “a good, old chronological river,” Maryellen Stewart, a social-media consultant who has kept a running diary on Tumblr since 2014, said. (Despite the anodyne nature of her posts, Stewart sometimes gets caught in the overaggressive content filter.) Posts appearing in the feed are undated, and many accounts are pseudonymous, creating a respite from the frenetic exposure of other social media. Users spoke of the platform feeling disconnected from the “real world”—no President would ever try to shape world events with a Tumblr post. “It’s harder to be a brand” there, Karina Tipismana, a twenty-year-old student who uses the service primarily for its text-based jokes and “Succession” GIFs, said. “It’s the periphery of the internet; nothing important is happening there.” There aren’t influencers on Tumblr the way there are on Instagram and TikTok, and the experience for all users might be more pleasant as a result. Chris Black, the co-host of the podcast “How Long Gone,” has kept a Tumblr account since 2010 and updates it daily. Titled Words for Young Men, it is a preppy-punk mood board of starlets smoking cigarettes, fashion-shoot outtakes, and design objects, interspersed with Black’s own photos from daily life—a life-style magazine for one. Compared to the public-facing mode that is dominant on Instagram, Black’s Tumblr “is almost more personal, in a way, even though it’s not always images that I took,” he said.

D’Onofrio, the C.E.O., hopes to capitalize on users’ sense of intimacy with the platform. Rather than relying primarily on automated, programmatic advertising sales, he is pursuing individual campaigns with streaming giants such as Disney, Netflix, and Amazon, which see opportunity in the site’s thriving enclaves of various fandoms. According to Tumblr, revenue is up fifty-five per cent since July of 2021. Yet the company currently sees only around eleven million posts a day; Twitter, by comparison, is said to host five hundred million daily tweets. The goal is to maintain “the positivity that we’ve worked so hard to build here,” D’Onofrio said, adding, “It can’t be growth at all costs.”

I recently excavated 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 relished the silence. Where else on the Internet do you see only a handful of posts a day? The site’s default dark, blue-gray background recalls a bedroom at night, lit only by a screen’s glow. The best part was looking through my own archive and realizing that the Internet ephemera I gravitate toward has remained almost embarrassingly consistent over the past decade: abstract paintings, architecture photos, vintage video games, Wong Kar Wai stills. In the hyper-pressurized environment of social media circa 2022, it’s rare to encounter a past digital self, unless it is being dug up to defame you. What makes Tumblr obsolete, for the moment, are the same things that lend it an enduring appeal. The fact that it maintains a following should remind us that we use social-media services by choice; no platform or feature is an inevitability. As Karina Tipismana, the student, told me, “People say stuff like, ‘I wish we could still use Tumblr.’ It’s there, it’s there!”



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