#KeepTumblrWeird: Tumblr’s Identity Is Slowly Being Replaced to Keep Up with Rival Platforms

by Emily E. Steck

#KeepTumblrWeird: Tumblr’s Identity Is Slowly Being Replaced to Keep Up with Rival Platforms

Tumblr is weird. It’s not a social network based on people you may know in real life, it’s not limited to 140 characters and it’s not a professional networking site. It’s a microblogging site with untapped potential, boasting over 221 million blogs and 102 billion posts. It’s estimated to make $100 million in advertising revenue this year thanks to sponsored posts and renewed focus on brand relationships.

So why does it feel like Tumblr’s not itself anymore?

Let’s back up. Like other social media platforms, Tumblr carved out its own identity, mainly by embracing the weird. This is a place where it’s normal to find loose grammar, hyperbolic language, pun URLs, modified memes, fandom obsessions, curated posts from other platforms and an endless number of reaction gifs and memes. The Tumblr community can be troubling for some—the bullying, the fandom wars, belligerent social justice warriors, misogyny, pornography—but this is what comes with the turf of being on the internet. It was so great that Yahoo decided it to acquire Tumblr for $1.1 billion dollars in May 2013.

What is so great about Tumblr as a platform and community is how weird it is—and that weirdness is somehow open to everybody. Gif makers, artists, video artists, graphic designers, writers and casual fans could use it for anything. It caters to young people—66% of all visitors are under the age of 35, while 39% are under 25 years-old—and it boasts about 28 minutes time spent on Tumblr’s dashboard sessions.

Yet despite its projected success, that weirdness is slowly being stripped away. Late in 2014, Tumblr adjusted the dimensions of image and gif size requirements by 40 pixels, changing the width of photographs and images from 500px to 540px. Tumblr users were outraged because the visually-inclined site hosts plenty of artwork, gifs, images and more from users and fandoms and even created a petition after the change broke gif sets.

Why did Tumblr change its size requirements if it was so universally hated? Two words: video platform. Industry insiders believe Yahoo wants to make Tumblr a video competitor to Google’s YouTube. Tumblr is a traditional blogging platform, scrolling through endless streams of text, photo and gif-heavy posts. Videos are embedded from YouTube, Vine and Vimeo rather than uploaded. To fix this, Tumblr now loops videos and Vines and “pops out” the video player to watch as they continue to scroll.

So okay, Tumblr wants to edge towards becoming video platform despite its blogging roots. Yahoo wants to become Google. Fine, cool. The curious thing is that it also wants to be a blogging and writing platform, too. Huh?

Tumblr’s latest update—the one that makes it a competitive blogging platform to rival Medium—really wants to appeal to longform writers, despite the fact that Tumblr is known for its shortform writing. New features include a rollout toolbar where it’s easy to edit text, add media, structure posts with subheadings and preview your post exactly how it looks like on the dashboard.

It sounds great, right? Tumblr is getting back to its blogging roots (while also trying to be a video platform). Except, the interface is cumbersome at best—searching for the HTML tag is difficult and I still get a little grey icon every time I don’t upload a photo (which is odd since Tumblr has long been considered a more visual platform).

So Tumblr is stretching its abilities as a platform. It’s split between becoming a video or longform writing platform and its inferior at both. Yes, it’s still in its early stages, but Tumblr (and Yahoo) are forgetting why Tumblr is so valuable.

For consumers, it’s that community weirdness I mentioned. For brands, it’s the fact that the Tumblr weirdness works very well for them. Tumblr offers great native ad experiences which Tumblr users reward: the average sponsored post on Tumblr gets reblogged 10,000 times because it usually implements strong visuals and gifs—things Tumblr’s users actually like. And Tumblr’s new Creatrs Network recognizes that these artists and content creators can pair up with brands to make native ad content, often gifs and artwork.

Defenders of the new update may claim that it’s moving towards being a place for all types of content creators with its focus on video and longform writing. It’s doing it all! But it can’t. Why can’t it do it all? Because it’s sacrificing the quality of that experience. In its hopes to be a jack of all trades, it is a master of none.

What Tumblr has always excelled at is fostering freedom and creativity. Want to upload a gif set for your favourite show? Go ahead. Want to write a 100 character funny text post? Want to share your favourite photography from another site? That’s great too! The community is what you want to make of it, but that community may disappear if it replaces its product with something inferior. And that could have a ripple effect on how successful Tumblr’s brand relationships are.

The problem is, now, that it feels like Yahoo prescribing what the platform should be used for. We already know that Facebook isn’t cool anymore. I just hope I never see the day when Tumblr isn’t really weird anymore.


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Image Credit:josh james via Flickr

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