WordPress could give Tumblr the thing it needs most: stability

Automattic, the company behind the longstanding blog platform WordPress, just bought Tumblr from Verizon for a pittance — leaving many of the quirky, beloved social network’s users wondering what comes next.

Axios reported that Automattic purchased Tumblr, which launched in 2007, for “well below” $20 million; Axios business editor Dan Primack added in a tweet that the sale price was in fact below $3 million, and Recode’s Peter Kafka tells Vox that sources say the actual figure is closer to $2 million. That’s a very long way down from Yahoo’s infamous $1.1 billion purchase of the website in 2013. (Verizon subsumed Tumblr when it acquired Yahoo in 2017.)

Chart showing Tumblr’s sales price in 2013 ($1.1B) and now (<$3M)

Rani Molla/Recode

For tech gawkers who’ve spent months tracking Verizon’s “messy” handling of the “beleaguered” Tumblr and its “squandered potential,” none of this is a surprise. But while many members of the business world seem to have already written off Tumblr as a platform fated to perish in the age of advertising-driven social media, the Tumblr community continues to be a vibrant corner of the internet — even after last year’s notorious adult content ban. The bigger question about the site’s new ownership is how this new sale will affect Tumblr’s unique community.

WordPress’s creator and Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg told the Wall Street Journal that while his company intended to keep Tumblr’s adult content ban in place, Automattic had no intention of running roughshod over Tumblr’s existing atmosphere. “It’s just fun,” he told the WSJ of his impression of the website. “We’re not going to change any of that.”

But Tumblr users have heard that tune before. In 2013, in response to the Tumblr community’s fears about the Yahoo acquisition, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer promised “not to screw it up.”

Screwing it up, however, is arguably just what happened next.

Tumblr isn’t a mainstream social media platform. Yahoo and Verizon tried desperately to make it one.

At the time that the Yahoo purchase of Tumblr from its CEO and founder David Karp was completed, it was clear that the ancient internet company was looking for something to revitalize it. Cue a community awash in GIFs, memes, fandom, and all other manners of contemporary online culture — a seemingly perfect answer to Yahoo’s question of how to combat its near-irrelevance. But reports soon began to emerge that Tumblr was floundering financially, as Yahoo tried and failed to wrangle the freewheeling blogging platform into a profitable, advertising-friendly brand.

Yet Yahoo failed to understand Tumblr and, more importantly, Tumblr’s community. Yahoo’s attempts at bringing advertisers into the community space frequently generated ridicule from Tumblr users. Advertisers and brands kept trying — and failing — to assimilate themselves into the Tumblr landscape, generating “how do you do fellow kids” results.

In 2016, Yahoo wrote off its Tumblr investment as a $230 million loss and hinted that the actual loss could be nearly the entire $1 billion. In 2017, Verizon acquired the platform as part of its overall acquisition of Yahoo, and the fissures between Tumblr’s independent, grassroots community and the goals of the telecom site deepened.

The death knell for the Verizon-Tumblr union came in fall 2018, when Tumblr, following the dictates of Apple’s content guidelines for the Apple Store, banned all adult content from the site. Tumblr made an effort to ensure that the artistic content that was Tumblr’s lifeblood didn’t become part of the ban, which was enforced by algorithm. But its staff largely failed at keeping the algorithm from targeting completely benign posts, artists got censored, and pornbots continued to plague the site; the prohibition was an ineffectual disaster, and Tumblr lost 30 percent of its user base in the six months after the ban took effect.

But the remaining 70 percent of Tumblr arguably may have benefited from this slowdown and crowd-thinning. The nature of the community hasn’t really changed; the site still generates memes, pop culture meta-commentary, and fandom and lifestyle content galore. Now, with Verizon cutting the strings, perhaps there’s a chance for Tumblr to just be Tumblr without any pressure to produce revenue for its parent company. In the meantime, the sale has generated memes and typical Tumblr humor from the community:

Despite the site’s current “party ’til the grave” atmosphere, however, there’s plenty of reason to view the WordPress acquisition as a positive — and long overdue — move for Tumblr.

Tumblr community members are skeptical about the next sale, but their independent spirit aligns with WordPress in many ways

Tumblr users generally reacted to news of the sale with cynicism, with many reblogging the staff’s post about the sale to beg the new owners to unban adult content, or to express cautious optimism while complaining about the site’s continued problems — mainly the presence of pornbots and, increasingly, ideological extremism.

But while WordPress isn’t lifting the adult content ban, there’s plenty of reason to believe that, at the very least, the sale can’t make things worse. Like Tumblr, WordPress is a niche but thriving internet sub-community, albeit one founded in 2003, just before the dawn of social media. WordPress began as a blogging community, and that’s still what it’s best known for today.

Though its heyday was undoubtedly the peak of “Internet 2.0” in the mid-aughts, when blog platforms were at their most popular, WordPress has continued to maintain a loyal user base while expanding into the world of easy website building and design; these days, even with a plethora of competitors out there, most of the internet’s personal websites are “proudly powered by WordPress.”

Anil Dash, CEO of Glitch and one of the first employees of WordPress’s old-school blogging competitor LiveJournal, told Vox that while a return to a discussion of “blogs” feels quaint, WordPress and Tumblr actually have a lot in common.

“Social media moves so fast that talking about ‘blogs’ feels like 100 years ago, even though their heyday was barely more than a decade ago,” Dash said. “And though the community signifiers are very different, both WordPress and Tumblr come from an era where people might have a site on their own domain, and share their own thoughts, and could possibly even develop their own audience without even having a presence on Instagram, which didn’t even exist when they started.”

In 2014, a year after Tumblr’s $1.1 billion sale, WordPress’s parent company Automattic got a valuation of $1.2 billion, and while it’s resisted acquisition, the tech world has long been full of speculation that the company is close to either being bought or going public.

WordPress has succeeded thus far by not rocking the boat, catering to its community, and essentially doing one thing — blogging — extremely well. This would seem to make it an ideal parent for Tumblr’s more unruly, unwieldy blog format, which gave the world the “reblog” and made use of universalized tagging systems to connect its noisy user base. WordPress, with no reblogs, has a much less streamlined tagging system, and its “blogroll” approach to connecting users feels hopelessly outdated. In essence, each company has things to teach the other about blogging.

“I don’t think there’s any organic connection between the two platforms,” Dash told me, “though I do hope Automattic updates WordPress’s feature for reading blogs to be as good as Tumblr’s timeline.”

Where WordPress excels over Tumblr, however, is in respecting and following its community’s lead on things like site design. One of the foundations of its success is its commitment to open source web design, meaning anyone can make and customize their own WordPress website theme. We might say Tumblr is something of an open source community too, with the ecosystem flourishing and growing most when it’s able to be artistically inventive and essentially bend Tumblr’s format in new and interesting directions. (For instance, the site was initially intended to be a “microblog,” closer in spirit to Twitter’s original 180-character limit; instead, Tumblr users made the platform well-known for long, image-heavy posts, subcultural artistic movements, and animated GIF storytelling.) Tumblr’s corporate overlords have had significant trouble with this notion in the past, but supporting a more hands-off community is not something that should give Automattic much trouble.

Dash told Vox that this sale is really about what he sees as an emergent movement from both older and newer internet users to restore the independent, grassroots feel of the internet before social media — when most community platforms were niche and non-corporatized.

“There’s a very strong movement toward creating an independent, creative internet, whether it’s old-timers who idealize the old web or younger people who are creeped out by the dominance of the major social networks,” he said. “That makes me optimistic that a combined Tumblr and WordPress could make independent social media voices relevant again ahead of a presumable IPO for Automattic.”

He agrees, however, that Tumblr’s adult content ban, while it seriously hampered the community’s vitality, isn’t the make-or-break issue it’s been framed as by users and business pundits alike.

“It’s not a deal breaker that they’re not going to allow porn,” he said. “I do think the porn aspect has always been overstated.” He told Vox he hopes WordPress will bring some much-needed stasis to a site that’s been in flux since 2013.

“Ideally it’ll just be revitalized, and feel more stable that it’s going to be around a long time.”