Yes, Tumblr’s Cool — Just Not for the Reasons You’ve Heard

Photographer: Jennifer S. Altman

Tumblr founder David Karp

If you’ve heard anything about Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer’s announcement that Yahoo would spend $1.1 billion to buy Tumblr, it’s that the deal is about making Yahoo “young” and/or “cool” again. The thinking is that Tumblr, “popular with the highly coveted 18-to-24-year-old demographic,” can bring in an audience attractive to advertisers before Yahoo rides off into the sunset in the tracks of the old America Online. Coming just about exactly a year after Facebook’s initial public offering, it’s a sign for many observers that the social media wars are getting even more heated, with “young” and “cool” as the prize. The risk is that Tumblr’s “cool” users will desert Tumblr if Yahoo makes it old and boring.

As a fan and active user of Tumblr, I find myself puzzled here. I’m not sure what “cool” means in much of the writing about Tumblr. Mostly it seems to me that “young” and “cool” are basically marketing-speak, translating to a vague idea that if you get a lot users who are are young and tech-savvy, another popular buzzword, you can advertise a lot to them. As long as they’re not also broke, which the young and cool often are. “Cool” also may be an awkward euphemism for “stuff that seems mysteriously popular” (read: animated GIFs).

I may have left my 20s behind, but I think I can explain what’s cool about Tumblr without resorting to marketing-speak, and it starts with dropping the idea that Tumblr is involved in some kind of race for dominance among social networks. Tumblr has a social element, but at its core it’s a very elegant publishing platform for anything–from text to images to video–that demands stylish presentation without the full complexity of a magazine. That’s why Tumblr has attracted a following among what folks think of a the creative classes, in areas like art and advertising. That in turn has led to a virtuous cycle in which other designers and developers build tools to make publishing on Tumblr slicker and better.

Want some examples? You don’t have to go far. Bloomberg.com’s photo editors started a Tumblr blog to highlight Bloomberg’s best photos; you can see it here. Then there’s my own experience. My wife is an artist and has used sites built with Tumblr to collect her work online, and as a home base for the painting classes she teaches in New York.

The first of those was built using only free tools. For the second, we invested less than $30 in a beautiful template built by a talented developer and customized it for our needs. These were not just the cheapest options for us: they were also sleeker and more professional-looking than more expensive alternatives. Bigger companies have built Tumblr blogs to communicate with customers. I’ve also used Tumblr for what would probably be called “rapid prototyping,” building mockups of what would turn out to be bigger projects — including this blog.

If all this sounds like an advertisement for Tumblr, that’s OK, because it’s a product I like a lot. And would pay for. That’s where my view of Tumblr diverges from that of many folks.

Apple, even in its darkest days, remained “cool” because Apple’s computers were positioned as a company that made great tools for people in the creative professions. That feels like a much more workable path forward for Tumblr than the plan of advertising to the Abercrombie & Fitch kids that many folks envision. The notion that you can aggregate enough young eyeballs to make randomly throwing advertisements at them profitable has been around since the beginning of the internet age, and so far it hasn’t borne much fruit. Yahoo has tried plenty of variations — The New York Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin points to Geocities, a $3.6 billion acquisition that turned out to be a big zero. My hope as a Tumblr user is that Yahoo has something better in mind.

Right now Tumblr hosts 108.8 million blogs. Undoubtedly a great number of those are brief experiments. Just as many folks join Twitter, post once or twice and realize that they’re more interested in reading than posting, so too with Tumblr. And many users, myself included, have set up more than one Tumblr. That still likely leaves hundreds of thousands of people for whom Tumblr has turned out to be a genuinely useful platform for communication. As one of them, I’d be willing to pay for Tumblr now (no, I’m not volunteering to send Yahoo a donation) and probably willing to pay for more features later.

Yahoo could try to make money from Tumblr by crowding out content with ads purported to appeal to teens and twentysomethings. That’s the MySpace model – not a big hit. Or Mayer can look to active users like me, keep improving Tumblr, and charge money for a killer product. That seems a little cooler.

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