Tumblr, the popular microblogging site, had a great 2011. According to a recently released ComScore white paper, Tumblr's total audience sized jumped from 18.6 million users to 44 million between November 2010 and November 2011 (although Tumblr's Mark Coatney puts the number at 39 million). Now Tumblr's taking an unusual step in an effort to sift through the millions of photos and links hosted on the site: paid in-house curators and original content producers.
In a recent jobs posting, Tumblr advertised for in-house editorial staff who would be responsible for both creating original content and promoting interesting blog posts created by the service's massive user base. The advertisement, which called for staff to help "tell the stories of the millions of creative Tumblr users to the world," was later taken offline. Tumblr's Mark Coatney tells Fast Company that while "80 to 90% of Tumblr's new hires will be developers," paid editors would be used to help cherrypick interesting content and develop original stories.
Most microblogs hosted by Tumblr consists of content—photos, short snippets of text, or videos—that can then be "reblogged" by other Tumblr users or appended with comments. It's an intellectual-rights headache that has proven to be massively popular. The microblogging service currently relies on a small army of unpaid volunteers who sort out interesting topical content in a Wikipedia-like fashion. (Disclosure: I once served as a volunteer Tumblr editor for stories related to the Arab Spring.)
The mere act of creating in-house content and hiring paid employees to curate user-generated content is an example of what microblogging sites and social networking cope with to provide a serviceable user experience. Tumblr, Twitter, Weibo, and Facebook are all communications services that double as mass media. The decentralized distribution model of all these sites is part of the reason for their appeal... they've also fueled social phenomena as disparate as the Egyptian revolution, mass protests in Russia, and "Fuck Yeah" memes. For all of these services, the question is how to sort, categorize, and monetize the sheer amount of user content they generate.
Tumblr's decision to embrace original content indicates that they are hewing less to Twitter's conservative strategy; instead, they're more interested in Facebook's model of aggressively courting content creators. Coatney is a former journalist with roots at Time and Newsweek who has proven instrumental in forging partnerships with beloved media brands. The microblogging service's image- and video-centric nature also makes it uniquely well poised for courting international users; the language barrier preventing users from sharing and exchanging content is significantly reduced. Promoting in-house and heavily curated content, it also seems, will give Tumblr a way of steering new users around the service who would otherwise be overwhelmed.
It also helps Tumblr sidestep some of the issues the company has been seeing. Tumblr has suffered frequent service outages; one estimate by Pingdom found that Tumblr had approximately three hours and 50 minutes of service outages each month in 2011. While that amount might not seem like a lot, it's considerable in the fast-paced world of social networking. It's a scientific fact that teenagers who want to share Twilight clips and personal rants won't wait 15 minutes for IT staff to fix server outages; they'll just go elsewhere. Tumblr's performance has actually improved quite a bit since 2010, when service went down for days at a time. The site's massive growth has also meant huge scalability problems, with Tumblr investors such as Sequoia Capital and Richard Branson footing the bill for dealing with the technical challenges of running a popular, bandwidth-heavy web service.
Tumblr higher-ups such as Coatney, founder David Karp, and president John Maloney have also been fighting an ongoing battle with microblog spam. Junk blogs and misleading comments have flooded Tumblr users, many of which lead visitors to sites selling pharmaceuticals, clothing, and technical items of dubious quality and legality. Worst of all for Tumblr is the fact that the site's extremely young demographics mean many users haven't yet acquired the common-sense skills of sussing out garbage on the Internet. It's a challenge faced by many other web communications services such as Facebook, WordPress, and Google's Blogger; it's also an expensive headache for all three.
The other issue Tumblr is facing is less pressing but more sensitive. Most observers are already aware of the open secret that Tumblr is a hotbed of porn sites. Quantcast data shows the top 20 Tumblr subdomains include several porn sites—although the most popular subdomains are chestnuts like Kim Jong Il Looking At Things. Tumblr's image-centric interface and one-click nature makes it perfect for sharing photographs and videos of all sorts, including pornographic ones.
Quantcast's data indicates that adult-oriented sites account for at least a tenth of the service's most visited subdomains. Although Quantcast metrics are not carved in stone, they also provide a decent thumbnail of traffic. While that might be fine with the site's investors, it's also a challenge for any web service seeking to either monetize or go public. Pornographic content is also a potential legal headache for Tumblr, which draws a much higher percentage of its user traffic from foreign countries (some with antiquated morality laws) than other web services.
In a telephone interview, Coatney didn't comment directly on porn at Tumblr and appeared to be more concerned with the site's technical and server-side issues. Lux Alptraum of Fleshbot.com tells Fast Company that "porn, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and will fill in any pornless space that it is allowed into. The only thing that makes Tumblr especially porny is that Tumblr has never seen fit to crack down on their adult content, unlike virtually every other social space." That adult content will create challenges if the microblogging site ever decides to go public.
This might just be why Tumblr is planning to create in-house content. Coatney, who said that he wants to "unearth interesting content from citizens in a city of 39 million," works for a company whose profit model is still unclear. Tumblr currently sells optional premium blog templates, but the site is reportedly valued at over $800 million and does not have a clear moneymaking scheme. It's safe to say that Sequoia Capital and Union Square Ventures did not invest heavily in Tumblr out of a love of "Fuck Yeah" blogs and vintage Ducktales clips (as fun as they are). Whether Tumblr decides to accept advertising, enable premium features for subscribers, or adopt an alternate profit model, 2012 will be a make-or-break year for the service. Offering users a curated experience and in-house content might just be what helps break them into the A-list of social media services.
[Image: Flickr User slworking2]