Tumblr's Bold Strategy: User Generated Content, After A Fashion

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Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a classic example of fiddling while Rome burns, or a masterstoke in brand positioning. In fact, come to think of it, maybe Tumblr’s decision to hire a “fashion director” and to pay for twenty bloggers to attend New York fashion week is both of those things.

Certainly, you might think the company would have other priorities: like solving its persistent up-time problems – an issue that affects far more than the twenty lucky Tumblrs who will “receive complimentary flights, accommodation, and will be whisked off to lunches, dinners, and cocktails with a roster of to-be-confirmed brands and designers”. At the same time, though, the Fashion Week junket addresses something that might cause even more of a challenge for Tumblr in future: the generation of original, re-bloggable content.

Most earlier blogging platforms – Livejournal, Blogger et al – built their user-bases on text: millions of diary entries and diatribes penned by angsty teenagers and frustrated Starbucks employees. Dirt-cheap content, in other words. Tumblr, on the other hand, is all about images: photos of food, fails and – yes – fashion uploaded by some users and then re-blogged by countless millions more. As such, the company’s success (or lack thereof) is dependant on encouraging a flow of high quality, ultra-rebloggable images.

For that reason, sending bloggers to Fashion week is a brilliant move: injecting hundreds (thousands?) of sexy, copyright-safe images into the Tumblr ecosystem while simultaneously positioning Tumblr as the go-to platform for the cool kids. Sure, Blogger has better uptime, but will they send you to the Carlos Miele show? Nuh-uh!

Above all, though, Tumblr’s attempts to influence and nurture the creative direction of its bloggers highlights something else: the fundamental difference between East and West coast social media companies.

West coast companies – Twitter, Facebook, Blogger et al – trust unfalteringly in the creativity of the crowds: leaving users to their own devices, confident that the vast sea of content they create will eventually issue forth some mermaids. Back East, though, the Manhattan media elites are a little more skeptical about citizen media and a little more bullish about the importance of editorial curation. Tumblr’s hiring of a fashion director perfectly encapsulates that belief system: our users need to be directed into producing high quality content, otherwise they’re just going to spend their days reblogging copyright-infringing porn. (Which maybe be a valid belief, affirmed by anyone who types “tumblr” into Google image search with SafeSearch turned off)

So, who is right? The West-coasters with their hands-off approach to creativity and editorial control, or the East-coasters whose views on citizen creativity are best summed up by this quote from Barry Diller…

“You have to distinguish between so-to-speak user-generated text or video, which will have a designed audience of four or forty, as against those things that will have a really wide dissemination.”

…?

Boringly, the answer is probably both. Increasingly the West coast platforms are dabbling in curation: MySpace and YouTube have both shifted from purely user-driven platforms into organising their own live events and actively producing content. Even Twitter employs an official celebrity liaison – albeit more out of the necessity of keeping its highest profile users happy than a desire to shape the conversation. Meanwhile it’s a rare East coast media company indeed which hasn’t embraced the power of social: opening up its editorial pages to user comments or encouraging its viewers to share their own videos and photos.

The problem is that neither side seems to believe in the compromise: the East coasters’ nod to social and community rarely avoids coming across as hugely patronising (“thanks, Wolf, now let’s have a look what the Tweeters are saying!”), while one can’t help to feel that YouTube’s partnering with media brands is more about keeping their copyright-owner enemies closer than any fundamental belief in the value of professionally-produced conent.

Still, for those of us who are eying the curation vs crowd-sourcing future with vested interest, it will at least be telling to see whether Tumblr’s experiment pays off. Whether their pet bloggers enjoy more page views and re-blogs for their costly, editorial-supported, Fashion Week coverage than they do for their regular snarky on-looking from behind the velvet ropes. Assuming, of course, that Tumblr stays up long enough for them to post anything at all.

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