Will Yahoo ruin Tumblr?

23:23, May 20 2013

I really hope not.

About three minutes before I started writing this, lumbering monolith Yahoo announced that it had bought beloved social blogging platform Tumblr for US$1.1 billion in cash. Aware of their current reputation, they subtitled their announcement "promises not to screw it up". Much like Facebook with Instagram, Yahoo (I refuse to use that!) have promised to keep Tumblr as a separate entity run by founder/CEO David Karp.

(Image credit: Buzzfeed.)


I'm a huge fan of Tumblr. Not so much Yahoo. Tumblr's position as both a blogging platform and a social network has resulted in a very young, very active community powering a very addictive site. People go on Tumblr to maintain their blogs, but also connect with people - through both their personal life and their opinions on a wide variety of topics and fiction. People go on Yahoo because they have been going on Yahoo since they first got online.

Tumblr is everything Yahoo is not. It's minimal, trendy, nimble, and youth-oriented. Yahoo is a dinosaur, desperately trying to pull off the style Tumblr achieves effortlessly. Last, Yahoo is an old-school Silicon Valley (San Fran) company, Tumblr is a young Silicon Alley (New York) company. 

The optics of the deal are horrible. Yahoo's investors could easily see $1.1 billion as too high. Tumblr's user base see Yahoo as that ugly purple thing that their older brother used for webmail before Gmail. Marissa Meyer may be kinda cool, but Yahoo is not cool. Want an example? Just look at the theme she chose for her blog. Ick.

But I don't want to just complain about it. Is it a smart move?

Acquisitions always make loyal users unhappy. The knee-jerk response will not be kind. My gut reaction to ANYONE controlling Tumblr other than David Karp is disgust. People are already moving to Wordpress much more than usual. Users will mount protests over the next few days, a few high-profile ones will leave, but most of the user base won't be so keen to leave the blog they put so much work into.

Tumblr needed to sell. Rumour has it they only had a few months left of investor capital, and the approximately US$10 million annual revenue their ads were bringing in wasn't about to cover the costs of running a site so huge. Was Yahoo the best fit for Tumblr? Well, Yahoo, for all its faults, is essentially a huge advertising business, so its sales team may be a huge asset for Tumblr. Yahoo mostly sells "display" ads - think banners - while the only advertising Tumblr has allowed so far is "native" - think sponsored posts within the service that are given special importance.  If the Tumblr team can continue to build Tumblr as they have so far, but let Yahoo sell their native ads, this could all work out okay*. Yahoo is probably smart enough to see the move away from display advertising, and Tumblr is the perfect platform to really develop native advertising into something hugely profitable, something Twitter and Facebook are struggling to realise.

Yahoo are aware of their own uncoolness - that's why they barely touched Flickr - so I don't see them messing with the experience in a huge way, as funny as the image above this post is.

Yahoo has also made it clear that this isn't a talent buy - you would hope not for $1.1 billion - so David Karp isn't going to be carted off anywhere else too fast.

What I'm really hoping is that this deal turns out like the Facebook/Instagram one. Sure, the Twitter thing and the ToS thing hurt the company a little, but six or so months on, Instagram remains a highly popular and separate service that doesn't really feel much like Facebook.

Or it could turn out like Flickr. Yahoo acquired Flickr when it was a hugely popular photo site, both popular and somewhat trendy. Both co-founders left in 2008, and the site didn't quite go downhill - it just didn't really go anywhere. Flickr took years to properly adopt mobile, years that allowed scrappy upstarts like Instagram to take its place. It finally got a redesign and now has some decent mobile apps, but only after years of neglect. Even worse, it could end up like Delicious - which Yahoo bought, ruined, then sold again.

I should say something here about Marissa Meyer, the newish CEO of Yahoo, who is by all accounts a very smart person. I would usually say that Yahoo could have attempted to build its own innovative product to compete with Tumblr with that $1.1 billion, but I think Meyer is intelligent enough to know that Tumblr users aren't going anywhere fast, especially not to a Yahoo property. A deal this big is a bold move, and I really hope it works out for her and the company - but I'm worried the structural problems with a dinosaur like Yahoo are too great for one person to fix.

I don't want Tumblr to become "just another" platform, like Flickr. Tumblr has the potential to sit with Facebook and Twitter as the "big three" of social. I already use it as much as I use Twitter, and probably more than I use Facebook. It brings all that creativity that Myspace and DeviantArt offered back into the ultra-consistent world of Facebook. It makes starting a little creative project easier than any other platform has. In the end, I have 8684 posts on my main Tumblr blog, and I really don't want to give them up.

What do you all think? Was $1.1b too much or too little? Are you worried for your blogs? Let me know below.

* Some people seem to think Yahoo will want to advertise on users' actual blogs, but I highly doubt that. Advertising on the dashboard (kind of like a Facebook newsfeed or a Twitter homepage) would be much easier and probably more effective, as most heavy users use the dashboard almost exclusively.

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