Deconstructing The Doomed Yahoo, Tumblr Romance

One is old, out of touch, and clueless when it comes to social media and Internet trends. The other is young, lightning-fast, crazy, pop culture-centric with a large dose of smut. What could go wrong?

Ah, Tumblr, home to a million fandoms, animated GIFs, and journeys of self-discovery by teenage girls. I’m not saying this as an insult—I’m actually quite impressed by how Tumblr became the go-to microblogging platform for these very specific communities. (The name Tumblr, or "tumblr" as it’s properly written, is a variant of the word "tumblelog," another word for mixed-media microblogging. You’re welcome.)

Did I mention the porn? There’s an awful lot of it on Tumblr, from GIFs lifted from professional porn movies to explicit art to smutty fanfic. It’s the kind of stuff you might have found on LiveJournal once upon a time, before they were bought and sold, added lots of advertising, were bought and sold again, and then suspended hundreds of accounts and communities—causing core users to leave in droves. It’s no surprise that most ended up on Tumblr, where anything goes and it takes just one click to pass around dirty GIFs.

Yahoo has promised that it won’t screw up Tumblr, that it will keep running it as an independent company. But that proclamation is being met with a lot of skepticism, in no small part due to the amazing mismatch of brands between Yahoo and Tumblr. Just think about it:

Yahoo: Old, out of touch, clueless when it comes to social media and Internet trends. Look what they did to Flickr, Delicious, and even poor Geocities.

Tumblr: Young, lightning-fast, crazy, pop culture-centric with a healthy dose of smut. An awful lot of its core users were born after Yahoo was founded.

What does Tumblr stand to gain from Yahoo, aside from making founder David Karp a billionaire? If anything, the Tumblr brand—its culture—reveled in its status as the chaotic home of outsiders. That’s the polar opposite of Yahoo. Yahoo, of course, would like to monetize Tumblr as quickly as possible, but how can they do that without compromising the brand? Tumblr is emphatically not about advertising. If anything, the culture is anti-advertising and pro-freedom of information (Read: We’re not afraid to violate IP rights, infringe copyrights, and share illegal torrents). If Tumblr is like a speedboat, jumping waves and making tight turns, then Yahoo is the transatlantic steamship that takes hours to change course.

Yahoo would love David Karp to sprinkle a little of his hipster magic on its brand and teach them how to talk to the kids these days. Yahoo, as a brand and as a service, is essentially meaningless to Tumblr’s users, since they use Google for searching and mail and get all their news from Twitter or Reddit. If the folks at Yahoo really think Tumblr is going to make them cool again, they’re high.

In fact, chances are good that users will leave Tumblr in droves, alarmed by the rumored avalanche of advertising and the potential crackdown on content. LiveJournal users didn’t have any qualms about going to Dreamwidth and Tumblr; Flickr users bounced to Instagram and back again; and is there anybody left on MySpace? Anyone?

Where will they go from Tumblr? A sizeable contingent of users has moved to WordPress, where there is more perceived freedom, although the actual content limits of WP have yet to be tested. And if not WordPress, another microblogging service will undoubtedly spring up to take Tumblr’s place. Maybe that will be Karp's next project, when his buyout tenure at Yahoo is done.

Laurel Sutton is a partner and cofounder at Catchword, a full-service naming firm.

[Image: Flickr user Alcino]

Add New Comment


  • Elaine Huang

    I'm actually really loving Medium right now, even though I haven't started my blog on that platform yet. Tumblr is a great way to discover new content, and talk to like-minded people. Its community has helped many (smutty, sassy) teenagers find a voice and know that they're not alone.

    Indeed, Yahoo! is old. Many youngsters pride themselves for being Google users. Hell, no one says: "I'll just Yahoo it." Google is now a legitimate verb. 

    Wordpress is a very different environment from Tumblr, having used both rather extensively in different periods of my life. The former is more formal, professional and focuses more on text. I find that Tumblr resembles Xanga more in terms of the community formed. 

  • not god

    An article, dutifully and emphatically written based on historically accurate surface evaluation. But you missed a huge detail. Marissa Mayer's Yahoo is not the Yahoo of last year. And I wouldn't underestimate her.

  • osiatynska

    Great observations. I enjoyed this read—and share your skepticism.

    I've been following the news about all of Yahoo's recent doings, the most significant of which, for me personally, has been the controversial redesign of Flickr (hastily unveiled on the day of the Tumblr acquisition). If you're interested, read my adverse critique.

  • Solarian818

    David Karp did not become a billionaire as a result of the sale to Yahoo. Just because the business sold for a billion does not mean he gets all the money, after all.

  • Eric La Brecque

    Laurel, a word in support of your "stunning surety": Whether or not the dealmakers are smarter than you, and whether or not Yahoo! eventually finds some way to extract juice from the Tumblr nut, the cognitive disconnect is there for all to see. You've called it. Time and again, supposedly savvy deal makers and financial types ignore this dimension of the assets they acquire—at their peril. It just doesn't fit comfortably into prevailing analytic models, I guess. Yahoo! is going to have a very tough time with this.   

  • Harry Hawk

    Thanks. in truth, they could keep Tumblr as is and fork the site creating Yumblr for a new audience that they would promote as being a bit more buttoned up, so there is the best of all worlds..

  • Mark Chronos

    I love the stunning surety of this article. Why didn't Marissa Mayer consult you before choosing to buy tumblr? You could have saved her so much trouble. Why didn't tumblr consult you before selling, also?

    Do not confuse being careless with being clueless. I don't think Yahoo is clueless, but careless? Certainly. The company has been careless with every asset it had for many years because the management (the board, mainly) thought they were still the home page of the internet and still the #1 place to go to find things on the net, but they weren't. There was, and still is, plenty of social going on at Yahoo: mail, news, sports, finance, the flailing Flickr that suddenly became interesting again ... many of the things that are shared on various social networks that exist currently ... but rollicking, cutting edge content (porn, even) of 20-somethings? No. Is that what matters about tumblr? Is that tumblr's only raison d'être? My 17 year old daughter and her friends are not on tumblr. They don't visit tumblr. They don't care about tumblr at all. They are the 20-somethings of tomorrow, not to mention the emotive teenagers of today. They are barely on Facebook. It's passé. Except for SMS, they are not beholden to any particular form of social networking nor any particular site.

    Does this mean the purchase of tumblr was smart for Yahoo? No. I have no idea one way or the other, and neither does anyone else. I suppose Mayer has some ideas of what she will do with the assets of tumblr. Maybe she has a vision for what Yahoo should do for its enormous number of daily visitors/users. Considering the number of Yahoo Mail users, the number of Yahoo Sports junkies and the number of photographers who will be boosting their collections on Flickr, just to name a few, I would not dare write off Yahoo. Even during its period of mosquito-breeding stagnant, standing water otherwise known as daily business activities for the past 5 years, Yahoo still attracted LOTS of users. Dying, it is not. Floundering in misdirection, it was.

    Just a few years ago, Yahoo had all the building blocks in place to become a blockbuster social site. Besides mail, calender, contacts, and tasks, they had profiles, photos, groups, website building tools,  blogs and even microblogging (remember 360?), but it was obvious that Yahoo was attempting to do way too much way too soon. They did not grow organically, smartly, one step at a time. They knew that people wanted to do all of these things (they had a clue), but they didn't realize that everyone would like to just use a slice of it at a time (they were careless).

    If anything, it would seem to me that Yahoo should become the backend engineering and design service company for hundreds of small companies that have great ideas and know how to implement them but not the technical wherewithal to execute.

  • Online Views

    Bullying at its best, and sadly the trend is growing. The desperate, "uncool" companies like Y want a shortcut to become cool, so they TRY to buy their way in, similar to DRTV companies trying to become cool Internet businesses, as TV infomercials are dying.

    "Y!" should've forked out money to Tumblr as a gift, to do more sweet things for Tumble-Culture. That would be beginning of something cool.

  • Prix777

    In what kind of dream world do you live in?  Companies may make gifts to charity or cooperate with others on certain projects, but your comment makes no sense.  How about you donate 5% of your salary to your local diner so they serve better quality food?

  • Anthony Reardon

    The only people that profit from ads are ad agencies, and that they don't work to convert web activity to sales means companies like Yahoo are going to continue pushing for "new" ideas that will "work this time". It's not just Tumblr, but you see other social platforms achieving levels of market intimacy, yet struggling to connect those achievements to brands. Then you've got companies like Yahoo with brands on board but struggling to connect to markets. On one hand the prevailing conventions are disappointing, and on the other hand just goes to show the opportunities are still there for the seizing.

  • Jen H

    As a former LiveJournal user turned Tumblr user who falls right into the Tumblr demographic, I do think this was a poor decision. Tumblr's advertising team was still only a small group--no less than 5 individuals, and the ads were only just starting to appear on the site. The gradualness of the rollout, as well as the companies coming up with clever ways to mesh with the subculture of Tumblr, made it hardly even noticeable. But I see no good coming from Yahoo. As much as I've been assured by various sites and friends who are employed by said companies, it seems they'll drive out the very audience Yahoo was hoping to reclaim. 

    It doesn't seem like WordPress can offer/keep up with the massive demands Tumblr users have come to expect though. I love Tumblr, honestly, and don't want to see it burn. But who knows in this business... The new Yahoo CEO seems to want to improve things, but not "screwing up" Tumblr, and implementing the various plans they have for it directly contradict each other. 

  • Celticgeas

    What puzzles me about this is that it won't change the core problem with Yahoo - they lack the creative talent to use change their company around. This acquisiton may give them something "in" and relevant, but they don't have the creative capacity to use it. 

    Instead of making billion dollar acquisitions, Yahoo should be spending those resources to try to rebuild the bridge they burned years ago with potential employees. Tumblr isn't enough to convince anyone that its a worthwhile bet to work for them.

    *Sorry about the typo!

  • Anna Rankin

    So far the only noticeable difference that I can see is that they moved the reblog button to the bottom of  posts, and have you seen the uproar it's caused? People liked Tumblr before, and if they keep changing things and trying to "improve" the website, I wouldn't be surprised if Tumblr ends up even worse than Myspace

  • Prix777

    You do realize that any changes on Tumblr pre and post buyout has nothing to do with Yahoo! right?

  • Laurel Sutton

    Shh, don't mention MySp____, Anna. It's like saying "Macbeth" in a theatre. Brings the bad luck crashing down. :-)