In my mid-teens, I started a tumblr. What is this weird spelling for a liquid-holding vessel you may ask? In internet lingo a “tumblr” refers to a highly customizable blog used predominantly for the sharing of images and text. The name not only refers to the special kind of blogs, but also to the name of the platform and company itself. This brings me to this week’s cue: where in the world is tumblr then? I interpret the question as asking in whose hands tumblr now resides and where the owner is based in the world. My answer is found in the book tumblr published in 2021 and authored by Tiidenberg, Hendry and Abidin, summarized hereunder.
tumblr.’s independent launch
In their introduction, the authors retrace the platform’s history and origin. Tumblr, they explain, was launched in 2007 by David Karp in the New York startup scene (page 3). Starting as an independent platform, tumblr has since then changed ownership and underwent several changes in its vision and mission. In tumblr’s earliest phase – “independent tumblr” – Karp prioritized the value of his product – value based on the three pillars of ease of use, design and creativity – over monetization or business. The mission of the product was to let its users effortlessly share content as well as express themselves (page 5). The authors note that the “what tumblr is for” segment of the website’s guidelines reflects a focus on creativity. As of October 10, 2022 this segment reads as follows: “Tumblr celebrates creativity. We want you to express yourself freely and use Tumblr to reflect who you are, and what you love, think, and stand for.”
Tumblr!?: Yahoo! and tumblr’s unhappy marriage
The platform proved a hit and in May 2013 Karp sold Tumblr Inc. to Yahoo! for a whopping 1.1 billion USD. After being acquired by Yahoo! the vision of promoting creativity shifted towards the “creative expression of one’s unique self” (page 6), curation of one’s tumblr blog in short. Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo! at the time, also highlighted the platform’s ad-revenue potential and merged the ad sales teams of both Tumblr Inc. and Yahoo! at the end of 2014, which proved to be a bad move as many tumblr employees resigned at that period (page 6-7). Using tumblr during this period, I remember ads popping up tumblrs left without updates to my great dismay. This period of tumblr management is looked back upon as a derailment of the platform’s propensity to to create a “vibrant network of powerful cultural commentary” (page 7). In June 2017, Verizon acquired Yahoo!, merged it with AOL and renamed the group OATH. Following this merger, tumblr’s founder David Karp left the company (page 7).
“SFW” tumblr and transfer to Automattic
In order to make the platform more attractive to advertisers, Verizon amplified the filters of sexual content in 2017 and announced to ban NSFW content by December 2018. This not only led to heavy protestations and often funny backlash (more about this in chapter 6 or here) on the platform, but also to a steep drop in user engagement and traffic (page 7-8). The platform losing value after its sanitation, Verizon searched to sell tumblr. Afte ra show of interest by Pornhub, Verizon finally sold tumblr the platform and Tumblr Inc. the company to Automattic, the owner of blogging platform WordPress for a measly 3 million by May 2019 (page 8). A quick lookup on wikipedia informs me that Automattic’s headquarters are located in San Franciso, California, thus answering my question. But does this really? Automattic’s website however informs me that the company operates thanks to employees scattered in around 100 countries, reflecting maybe tumblr’s decentralized structure.
Tiidenberg, Katrin, Natalie Ann Hendry, en Crystal Abidin. 2021. Tumblr. Digital Media and Society Series. Cambridge: Polity Press. https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Tumblr-p-9781509541102.