Last January, Fast Company’s Neal Ungerleider described Tumblr’s strategy for 2012 as "More Original Content, Less F*** Yeah Memes." But who says Tumblr can't have its cheeseburger gifs and eat them too?
Enter Reblorg, the latest experiment from Tumblr’s six-month old editorial department. Like Storyboard, which Tumblr launched in May, Reblorg highlights original content created by the Tumblr community. But where Storyboard included feature reporting on creators and their work, Reblorg’s homepage is a raw sensory assault of head-spinning gifs and image mashups; in other words, the kind of homegrown art Tumblr is perhaps best known for. In a fitting partnership, Tumblr recruited Next Media Animation, the Taiwanese production house famous for its gonzo news recaps, to explain what Reblorg is all about. Standby for bespectacled pandas:
It’s a far cry from most of Storyboard’s content, best exemplified by this tasteful look inside the New York Times’ photo archive. But although Tumblr had grown up a bit, increasing its contributor base to over 60 million blogs and letting go of its long-held reluctance to sell ad space, Reblorg proves the site is still unafraid to embrace the chaos of its community, instead of trying to reign it in.
It should come as little surprise that one of the guys responsible for Reblorg is Christopher "topherchris" Price, who first made his mark on Tumblr not as an employee but as a user (you can read his story here). Price knows the Tumblr community because he came from it, but he also understands the challenges of translating personal social media success to a large media company. And when the community is the source of your site's content, keeping them happy is crucial.
"I've been thinking for a long time about the best way to take the community engagement I do on my personal Tumblr and move it into a larger space," Price said. "At the same time, we realized that a hub for showing off new creative work from the Tumblr community was a smart thing to try. Combining those two areas is, to me, one of the core values of Tumblr. Creative plus community."
Users can submit their work by using the #reblorg tag on Tumblr. The editorial team then looks at each submission and posts what its likes. Anything goes, from profane haikus to ice sculptures. But Price admits his own tastes certainly come into play.
"I'm personally fascinated by what I call Internet art—that is, stuff that couldn't have existed until there was technology to make it and an Internet to put it on—and that's visible in the content so far. The recent resurgence of the GIF format as an artistic medium, for example, has led to new forms of work that defy description, and a great deal of that experimentation happens on Tumblr."
Price isn’t alone in his appreciation for animated GIFs. Once the scourge of '90s web design before being resurrected on message boards and social networks, GIFs are back in a big way. Today, not even the New York Times can escape the hypnotic pull of the GIF, its popularity ushered forth in large part by its use during the London 2012 Olympics. But while the timing couldn’t be better for the kind of art highlighted by Reblorg, Tumblr’s editor-in-chief Chris Mohney emphasizes that the project is about more than driving traffic to Tumblr.com.
"It's a way to get creative work we like in front of more people, both inside and outside of Tumblr," Mohney said. "Ideally it becomes a major source of content for accomplished curators and aggregators like Reddit, Buzzfeed, etc. Not to drive eyeballs to Reblorg, but to drive eyeballs to the work itself. Just like with Storyboard, it doesn't matter to us if someone sees the work we highlight on our sites or on someone else's. What matters is getting maximum attention for the work, everywhere."
That may not sound like a recipe for higher revenues, and indeed Mohney emphasizes that, like with Storyboard, Reblorg isn’t looking to feature sponsored content (Tumblr leaves that to its Radar and Spotlight programs). But consider Tumblr’s larger strategy for monetization. In May, Mohney said Tumblr was looking for advertisers to launch creative projects on the site, as opposed to merely buying a few pixels worth of real estate for static ads. If Reblorg can become a destination that people look to for top quality content, and a launchpad that helps creative content go viral, it could be a valuable tool to recruit advertisers who are looking for wider reach and a richer experience than, say, Facebook banner ads have to offer.
When it comes to social networks and search engines, people often say, "You’re not the user, you’re the product." In a sense, this is no less true for Tumblr than it is for Google or Facebook. But hearing Price and Mohney talk, it’s clear that what their community wants is the same thing they want: more original creative content. Price and Mohney also understand that users don’t care whether that content was made by experts or amateurs. Nor do they care whether they see it on their friend’s Tumblr or CNN's homepage.
"The mix of curation and creation, premium versus user-generated content ... these lines are blurring a lot faster than most people think, especially on the consumer side. Young people especially often don't distinguish between them, or don't care about the distinction. Whether or not this is a rich opportunity or a sign of the apocalypse depends on your perspective. Again, I think it's a little of each. Insert funny apocalypse GIF here."