ON MAY 20th Yahoo announced that it was buying Tumblr, a popular blogging platform, for $1.1 billion in cash. Blog-hosting websites date back to 1998 and 1999, when the concept of a personal journal organised as a list of posts in reverse chronological order, combined with the inexorable expansion of internet access, triggered a boom in confessional self-publishing. By 2007, however, the various blog-hosting platforms had matured considerably, along with the medium of blogging itself. Blogging software had become both powerful and complicated. Tumblr, which launched that year, took a different approach in an effort to make blogging simple again—and succeeded, which explains in part why Yahoo has now decided to buy it. So what exactly is Tumblr?
The first generation of blog software, including Open Diary, EditThisPage, LiveJournal and Blogger, made it easy to post text, essentially providing a large box into which a blog post could be typed or pasted, and a “post” button to publish it. A second generation, led for many years by Movable Type and now dominated by WordPress, offered users the choice between installing server software onto their own (or leased) machines, or relying on a hosted service run by the software-makers on their own hardware. These second-wave products matured into full-featured publishing systems that could be used to build company websites with static pages, database and scripting elements, product catalogues and blogs. This left a gap: the first generation of blog software was simple and great for text; the second generation could publish photos and videos too, with fancy layouts, but was fiddly to use. So-called “tumblelogs” emerged in 2005 to fill this gap. Tumblelogs focused on quick and easy posting of text snippets, photos and videos, rather than hefty chunks of prose. Tumblr, founded by David Karp, was one of many rival platforms to start with, but quickly came to dominate the field. The firm posts a running count that says it has 108.5m registered blogs and 50.9 billion posts. On May 20th Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s chief executive, said Tumblr had 300m users. More than 80m items were posted on Sunday alone. Mr Karp has said that the site has more than 20 billion page views per month.
This sheer volume of activity makes Tumblr appealing to Yahoo, which should be able to make money placing advertisements on Tumblr pages (though it will have to be careful not to alienate Tumblr’s users). But that is not the only reason Yahoo has pulled out its wallet. As well as being a blog platform, Tumblr is also a weakly linked social network, more akin to microblogs like Twitter—and its Chinese clones, known as weibo—than Facebook. To ordinary visitors, Tumblr pages look similar to those on any journaling site. But register for an account and an entire microblogging ecosystem materialises. Photos, videos, text and other entries can be “reblogged” and marked with “likes”, and individual Tumblr blogs (rather than users) can be followed. Popular posts may accrue hundreds or thousands of “notes”: short comments, likes and reblogs. Mr Karp said in 2012 that each original item posted to Tumblr is reblogged nine times on average, which means about 10% of items posted on Tumblr are original; most are reblogs of items posted by others. Tumblr lets the mash-up/remix generation express themselves by sharing, curating and collating items of interest. A survey of American internet users found that Tumblr was the most popular site among those aged 13-25. This seems to stem from its embrace of sharing, combined with its social looseness: unlike on Facebook, real names aren’t required (only an e-mail address), and users can present different personalities to the world through different blogs. Tumblr is, in a way, the anti-Facebook—a social network where you do not have to be friends with your mother.
Buying Tumblr thus gives Yahoo a much stronger position in the field of social networking, where it is a laggard. Yahoo’s only significant social network is Flickr, a photo-hosting and sharing site it acquired in 2005 but then neglected for many years. In the months since Ms Mayer’s arrival at Yahoo from Google, however, Flickr has found favour again, and it was comprehensively relaunched at an event on May 20th (which had been planned before the Tumblr acquisition was agreed). This, together with the purchase of Tumblr, signals Ms Mayer’s apparent strategy of beefing up Yahoo’s position in social media, but in a way that does not simply involve emulating the market leader, Facebook. Some Tumblr users are unhappy, however, and have been using Tumblr’s topic-tagging feature to post entries expressing their displeasure. They worry that Yahoo will meddle with it and disrupt the site’s subtle social core. (Yahoo says that as part of the deal, Mr Karp will stay and Tumblr will continue to be run as an independent business.) Part blogging platform, part social network, Tumblr’s free-and-easy approach is the basis of its appeal. Yahoo must tread carefully if it is to capitalise on Tumblr’s popularity without undermining it.
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