Tumblr Is Not What You Think

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Participation: The Trend That Is Bigger Than The Harlem Shake

Editor’s note: Adam Rifkin is co-founder and CEO of PandaWhale, an online network of interesting things and people. You can follow him on Twitter @ifindkarma.

Pop quiz: what is the favorite social networking site of Americans under age 25? If you guessed Facebook you are way behind the eight-ball, because Tumblr now enjoys more regular visits from the youth of America. That figure struck me while reading Garry Tan’s January 2013 survey and I wondered why? So I delved deeper; this article describes what I discovered while exploring the Tumblr network.

What are the young and restless doing on Tumblr all day? The answer is more complicated than it first appears and speaks to the continuing importance of the public web in the era of the walled garden.

For a long time, I thought of Tumblr as topic-based image blogging: In other words, self-expression through collecting pictures of a particular type of thing. Hence I thought that the iconic Tumblrs were Things Organized NeatlyGirls in Yoga Pants (NSFW) and Food on my Dog. Tumblr itself gives the impression that this is the main use-case for its service by highlighting almost exclusively this type of Tumblog in The Tumblr Directory.

ALL WRONG. Or rather, some of these Tumblrs are necessary for the system to work but, surprisingly, only a small percentage of them.

Tumblr actually became huge because it is the anti-blog. What is the No. 1 reason that people quit blogging? Because they can’t find and develop an audience. This has been true of every blogging platform ever made. Conversely, blogs that do find an audience tend to keep adding that type of content. This simple philosophy boils down to the equation: Mo’ pageviews = mo’ pages.

But Tumblr does not conform to this calculus, and the reason is that a large percentage of Tumblr users actually don’t WANT an audience. They do not want to be found, except by a few close friends who they explicitly share one of their tumblogs with. Therefore Tumblr’s notoriously weak search functionality is A-OK with most of its user base.

Tumblr provides its users with the oldest privacy-control strategy on the Internet: security through obscurity and multiple pseudonymity. Its users prefer a coarse-grained scheme they can easily understand over a sophisticated fine-grained privacy control — such as Facebook provides — that requires a lot of time and patience. To quote Sweet Brown, Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Tumblr proves that the issue is less about public vs. private and more about whether you are findable and identifiable by people who actually know you in real life.

Most Tumblr content falls into three categories:

  1. Photos of young people’s daily lives: studying, buying things, hanging out with friends. Many of these photos are from Instagram or the Tumblr mobile app, which is now quite good.
  2. Entertaining memes and gifs they find on Tumblr and re-share with their friends. A teenage friend of mine told me recently that he tries to post something to his Tumblog on an hourly basis — which requires endless scouring of other Tumblogs for re-bloggable content. Fortunately, the Tumblr Dashboard is designed specifically with this goal in mind: consume lots of things and “reblog” easily. This is where the topic-based photobloggers add value to the ecosystem; it’s why we see Tumblr encouraging the seeding of “rebloggable” content — such as live-Tumbling The Grammys.
  3. Porn and near-porn collections for personal use, usually under a different pseudonym.  (Protip: searches on many keywords at 11 p.m. yield VERY different results than the same searches at 11 a.m. And there’s a NSFW setting if you truly don’t want to see any of it.)

For the latter two, the fact that Tumblr offers full animated gif support is crucial as a differentiator from the static environs of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even Pinterest. Ten seconds of reaction shot — or sex act — make a big difference in expressive power. Also, gifs are far easier to view on mobile devices than video, and so far the big content owners have made little effort to stamp them out via DMCA.

Does this sound familar? Teenagers, amusing images, sharing only with trusted friends? In some ways, Tumblr is actually Facebook 2.0! As Facebook has become a real-life social network infested with parents, co-workers, ex-friends, and people you barely know, Tumblr has become the place where young people express themselves and their ACTUAL INTERESTS with their ACTUAL FRIENDS.

And Tumblr is growing — it’s now one of the top 10 websites in the United States, with 20 billion pageviews a month. The tremendous user engagement is enabling the company to quietly and discreetly build a powerful Interest Graph of things its users actually like and want to share. Tumblr still has a long road ahead with monetization, but the Interest Graph will be crucial to making sure anything Tumblr does is targeted and relevant to its users.

It’s important to note that Tumblr is not replacing Facebook; it’s merely siphoning off some authentic liking and sharing, especially among young Americans. Facebook needs to exist because it’s holding down the Mom, siblings, and lame friends part of a person’s social life — the “public-private” life, if you will. As long as Mom sees you on Facebook occasionally, she isn’t going to think to look for you on another site… which paradoxically frees young users to act out on a stage that seems more private to them despite being on the open web.

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