What will Tumblr become under the ownership of tech’s only Goldilocks founder?

This week, Automattic revealed it has signed all the paperwork to acquire Tumblr from Verizon, including its full staff of 200. Tumblr has undergone quite a journey since its headline-grabbing acquisition by Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo in 2013 for $1.1 billion, but after six years of neglect, its latest move is its first real start since it stopped being an independent company. Now, it’s in the hands of Matt Mullenweg, the only founder of a major tech company who has repeatedly demonstrated a talent for measured responses, moderation and a willingness to forego reckless explosive growth in favor of getting things “just right.”

There’s never been a better acquisition for all parties involved, or at least one in which every party should walk away feeling they got exactly what they needed out of the deal. Yes, that’s in spite of the reported $3 million-ish asking price.

Verizon Media acquired Tumblr through a deal made to buy Yahoo, under a previous media unit strategy and leadership team. Verizon Media has no stake in the company, and so headlines talking about the bath it apparently took relative to the original $1.1 billion acquisition price are either willfully ignorant or just plain dumb.

Six years after another company made that bad deal for a company it clearly didn’t have the right business focus to correctly operate, Verizon made a good one to recoup some money.

Aligned leadership and complementary offerings drive a win-win

Tumblr gets ownership that understands its product and has highly aligned business interests. It also gets a corporate owner that by most accounts understands the value of autonomy when dealing with the integration of acquired assets — an owner that has repeatedly emphasized that it wants to bring over everyone from Tumblr and let those employees continue doing the jobs they have been doing at Tumblr without much interference.

For a bargain, Automattic picks up a hybrid publishing platform/social network that skews much closer to the latter identity than WordPress, its core product. Tumblr, according to Automattic CEO and founder Matt Mullenweg when speaking to The Verge’s Nilay Patel and Julia Alexander about the deal, still has surprisingly high numbers in terms of overall and engaged users.

He refrained from sharing specifics ahead of the deal’s final closing, but did note that Tumblr has more daily active users than WordPress has monthly active users currently. WordPress doesn’t disclose its monthly active user numbers, but the platform is regularly cited as powering around a third of the sites on the internet, so the number is likely pretty high.

Mullenweg also repeatedly drew a distinction between Tumblr and WordPress during his interview on the podcast that positioned Tumblr more as a social network, and WordPress more as a publishing platform. Both were more or less competitors in their original incarnations, but Tumblr always placed more emphasis on the social hooks of reblogging, sharing and commenting. Now, it remains a home for micro-communities, fandoms and niche interest groups with high engagement.

This is where Mullenweg and Automattic see Tumblr filling a product gap that is both complementary to what Automattic does, but also not represented in its existing product makeup.

How Automattic sees the future of Tumblr and next-gen social networking 

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Image via Getty Images / aelitta

His vision of what it could be, while not yet fully articulated, seems to be at times a throwback to the heyday of blogging: when creators essentially built their own communities that were at once dissimilar from one another, but tied together via blogrolls and other loose associates.

But it’s clear he also sees the chance to evolve this with lessons learned from modern social networking platforms, including Twitter and Facebook. Mullenweg also seems hopeful that Automattic can sidestep the pitfalls of those with a more distributed community, and use the same approaches to privacy and content moderation that have helped WordPress largely escape the scrutiny and opprobrium that have attached to Facebook and Twitter.

But is that really possible — and can Tumblr be the scaffolding to build it? Tumblr has had its own issues with hate speech, violence and perceived censorship. Under Verizon Media, it also made the controversial decision to ban all perceived pornographic content — a decision which Mullenweg seems uninterested in walking back. But Tumblr also has plenty in the way of genuine bright spots, with interest-based communities that are supportive, highly engaged and adamant in their grassroots enthusiasm.

There’s one big reason that an Automattic-owned Tumblr could actually become a fresh new start in social networking, and something to usher in the post-Facebook era: Mullenweg himself. Automattic’s founder and long-time CEO is a refreshing exception when it comes to tech founders and execs — he’s a moderate.

I don’t mean that politically, but rather when it comes to his ability to see the value of balance. Whatever else they may be, the Zuckerbergs and Dorseys of the world have become maximalists — always seeking to push the upward limits in areas of the business where they see the most potential. In part because unlike the still-private Automattic, they’re beholden to public shareholders.

But Automattic, due in large part to Mullenweg himself, has pursued a very different path, and one that often seems to optimize for sustainable gains and growth in favor of looking to push rocketships past their breaking points. It’s this kind of considered, honest and bombast-free company building that might give Tumblr the bedrock it needs to become a new kind of social network for an internet economy that desperately needs a viable alternative approach.