What the Hell is Tumblr? And Other Worthwhile Questions

If you’re a nerd, you have spent the last year explaining to your friends the virtue (or downfall) of Twitter and Facebook. In another year, you’ll have a third prong to your presentation: Tumblr.

If you’re a nerd, you have spent the last year explaining to your friends the virtue (or downfall) of Twitter and Facebook. In another year, you’ll have a third prong to your presentation: Tumblr.


Tumblr is a little bit the long lost cousin of its other buzzword counterparts. Like Twitter, it takes the now-antiquated medium of the blog and refreshes it with a new format, a centralized platform, and more interactivity. Like Facebook, it’s yet another face on your online personality, a scrap book of the Web-you. In one sentence, Tumblr is a blogging platform that makes it easier to post video, audio, words, social bookmarks, photos, and even other people’s blog posts into your blog, and share it with other people. Instead of having to upload things to YouTube, Delicious or Flickr, or create your own WordPress database before posting things, you can put your media directly into Tumblr from your computer or mobile phone. It’s blogging, the way blogging was meant to be.

Tumblelogs, as they’re called, aren’t purely the invention of the site’s boyish founder, David Karp (see his personal tumblelog here.) The name once described multimedia blogs that were hand-coded by a handful of innovative bloggers, and didn’t adhere to the title-paragraph-paragraph formula that blogging had come to embrace.

“Tumblelogs don’t need all the context of written post,” Karp says. “The context is the blog itself, or the person writing it.” In that respect, reading a tumblelog feels a little like reading someone’s tweets on Twitter. One post in isolation doesn’t mean much, but if you look at a user’s stream–which you can do by “following” that person on Tumblr just as you do on Twitter–you can get a remarkably apt, fascinating window into his or her life without reading acres of type. Why are most conventional blogs kind of boring? Not everyone’s most interesting thoughts are communicated in text.

Karp created Tumblr with the help of Marco Arment (tumblelog here), his former consulting partner and current head of development, intending it to be a turnkey way for people to create the blogs they longed for without having to code up a maelstrom. The platform went live a year and a half ago; almost 75,000 existing tumbleloggers switched over almost immediately. Since Tumblr’s API allows its blogs to be extensively modified, customizations exploded. “We allow you to tear out all the formatting and branding, so the community has done things with their blogs that we never imagined,” says Karp. “Our job has been to make sure they have all the room they need to create an online identity they’re really proud of.”


Tumblr isn’t just about including media in your blog–it’s also about including people. That’s what gives Tumblr its high 85% retention rate; out of the 1 million blogs now on the platform, the vast majority are still adding new content all the time. Compare that to the high drop-off rates with traditional blogging and microblogging on Twitter, and you can see that something special is going on. The tumblelogs themselves seem to tingle with potential.


A lot of that retention is thanks to Tumblr’s elegant feedback system. Instead of the standard comment box at the bottom of a post–which incites spamming, flaming, and congested aesthetics–tumblelogs have a few other options for feedback. There’s a “like” button, which lets other users express their approbation, and the ability to follow and be followed by other users; there’s also a “reblog” feature that lets you embed other people’s posts in your blog, as a way of pointing people to stuff you like. That’s the makings of true Internet virality–in other words, it encourages you to encourage others to add content. That kind of reciprocality and centralization are what has made Twitter’s growth explosive in 2009.

The next task for the New York-based, venture-backed company of eight is broadening its appeal. “We have to take what’s magical about Tumblr and make it resonate to hundreds of millions of people, not just a few hundred thousand. We’re not all the way there yet,” Karp says. But growth has been brisk, with 40 million unique visitors in April and about 80- to 100,000 new tumbelogs created each month. “We really believe in this thing,” Karp says thoughtfully. “We’re approaching it as if could be the next Google.”

To push their upscaling, the team will have to think big about how to best go mainstream. “We’ve started to get introspective and philosophical,” explains Karp. The next phase of development, he says, will be figuring out how to leverage all the data that people pump into their tumblelogs each day. One product of that brainstorming has been Tumblr’s “answer” function, which takes any post ending with a question mark and tacks on an answer box at the bottom for people to respond. If you upload the question from your phone, it will text you back the answers you get in real time. “The world would be a better place if more people could find, love and create things more easily,” Karp says. That may mean more people finding, loving and creating on Tumblr.

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About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.