The news hit yesterday that WordPress has purchased Tumblr from Verizon (which owns it by virtue of its acquisition of Yahoo! and AOL).

USV seeded Tumblr along with our friends at Spark in the summer of 2007 and were actively involved in the development of the company until its sale to Yahoo! in 2013.

I maintained an active Tumblog from before we invested in 2007 until October 2016, when I stopped posting there. There was no moment when I decided to stop posting there. I just did.

The narrative around the sale of Tumblr to WordPress is all about Yahoo! paying more than a billion for it and selling it for $3mm. It is absolutely true that Yahoo! never figured out how to turn Tumblr into a business and ending up losing its shirt on the investment.

But it is also true that Tumblr was bypassed by native mobile applications like Instagram and Snapchat where it was even easier to post about your life. Tumblr was both a blogging platform and a social media application and while I always loved the versatility of the platform, native mobile applications benefit from simplicity, not complexity.

There was a time around 2010 and 2011 when Tumblr was the most engaging social platform that I was on. I followed and met quite a few interesting people there and it was a lot of fun to be on it.

David Karp, the founder of Tumblr, always focused on making Tumblr a “positive” experience. That is why he refused to have comments, even though I pushed him to do it and hacked Tumblr by putting Disqus on mine. That is why he made the primary (only?) form of engagement a heart.

And it worked. Tumblr was a happy place and using it made people feel good about themselves.

While the world of social media has evolved a lot in the last six years, since Tumblr sold to Yahoo!, it has not really gotten better. One could make a very strong argument that it has gotten a lot worse. Tumblr was an example of how to do social media right and we can learn a lot from it.


Comments (Archived):

  1. Matt A. Myers

    Lively thread on HN regarding the news – full thread: https://news.ycombinator.co…Tumblr was really simple, designed well. A few UI/UX changes reduced that some as a content creator, making it slightly less quick to navigate but not unsurmountable.The collapse in Tumblr’s traffic was due to Apple blocking the app in app store due to child sexual abuse content that wasn’t being removed efficiently – and Tumblr’s response was to ban all adult content.Automattic isn’t planning on reversing the adult content ban. My comment saying “Yup – so will die sooner than later once an adequate alternative exists. Shaming sex and sexuality via policy has no place in a reasonable, civilized, accepting – healthy society” – got 10 upvotes.Disqus is going downhill since its acquisition too. This is the problem with founders who build something who don’t care to govern, parent it for the foreseeable future.Twitter suffered once the main designers left as well – the ones who developed Bootstrap.

    1. William Mougayar

      thanks for the HN link Matt. lots of good info there!

    2. Richard

      Based on what I heard from a friend, their porn was on of the few female friendly porn supplies. Women loved it and loved creating on it.

      1. Paul

        I loved it.

    3. Im So Meta Even This Acronym

      Actually many porn still exists and fine on Tumblr, nobody seems to mention it. Hardcore stuff might be gone, but there’s other sub genres alive and well.I also wouldn’t blame founders. We have 1 life and if you can make a big fat exit, then it’s totally fine.

      1. Matt A. Myers

        Well, it depends on the scope we’re looking at. If looking out just for yourself – then that’s fine. If we’re looking out for everyone and long-term stability and improvement in the quality of life of everyone, improving organizational ability, increasing resource use efficiency to reduce waste, etc. then a single person or a handful of people making a lot of money, and in an accelerate way that the VC industrial complex allows for, then it’s not so fine. Of course everyone has a choice, relatively speaking, and a person cares more about money they get, or wanting a big payout – of course if taking VC then that’s a constant pressure applied, and aren’t passionate towards what they’re doing – then inevitably the result is clear. Efficiency, inefficiency, patience, rushing, selfishness, selflessness, scarcity, abundance, etc. are all spectrums and you can play into whatever structures you’ve come to understand enough to guide you on your path.

        1. Im So Meta Even This Acronym

          Hello Matt, thanks for taking your time to respond to me. We probably have to accept that most structures we build on the internet are not permanent, not stable and inherently chaotic. We should embrace constant change. I think Tumblr had a great effect, inspired endless copycats and entrepreneurs.This current case I’m not sure who got hurt. Tumblr employees are probably fine, users are fine, maybe some VC money gut burnt… bummer 🙂

          1. Matt A. Myers

            Once again how “probably” unfolds in your own perspective will depend on your view. I disagree that this “chaos” – purposefully overly complicated shuffling of money and resources, along with financial markets, aren’t necessary; it’s late stage capitalism.I heard Andrew Yang on Jon Lemon (CNN) – https://www.youtube.com/wat… – quote another brilliant man, Eric Weinstein who said: “We never knew that capitalism was going to be eaten by its son — technology.”This was in regards to that the efficiency of capitalism, amplified visa vie greed and selfishness, lead to rapid advancement in technology, and specifically automation – which then is leading towards not needing the mechanisms of capitalism anymore; free market of course is important, and will become simple for the layperson to understand to “vote with their $” once the “chaos” clears.I agree wholeheartedly we should embrace constant change – however can you acknowledge the waste when well-functioning, loved systems and platforms get destroyed because changes of governance and in guiding metrics? Imagine Tumblr thriving – and then the $1.1B Yahoo spent buying them instead going into funding 10,000 startup projects, etc..Anyway, through competition all of these systems will become more and more efficient, and the more stable, simpler – less “chaotic” systems will scale exponentially faster. I think I’ve figured out the foundational model for this, having to slowly heal the remaining injuries/pain I have however before I can put enough effort to move it forward quickly however.And in conclusion, it’s society’s money – VCs were fine, Yahoo! was on the public stock market – so how each person made out financially will depend on when they (or their financial advisor or fund bought the stock; and made their profit simply by making the trade – which leads to highly inefficient investing because of the wrong reward and incentive mechanisms.

  2. sdso234

    Such an interesting case study.To me, the story is about making acquisitions from a position of weakness -believing that the ‘right”deal will solve your fundamentals problems. Yahoo had a product development problem, and thought that tumblr could help solve it. It was an attempt at a quick fix rather than the long, messy slog of changing culture. But instead yahoo ruined tumblr.By contrast, look at successful acquisitions: Instagram, YouTube, Waze, NBCUniversal, lucasfilm – the acquirers fundamentally saw these as opportunities for new growth, as opposed to “fixing” a deficit In the legacy companies. And one can even argue that the acquirers enabled / facilitated bigger success through their cultural, financial and technical contributions.

  3. William Mougayar

    Tumblr’s user base is much larger than WordPress (23 million users apparently). I’m sure there will be a huge migration to WordPress if there are easy migration tools…or maybe it becomes WordPress Light. WordPress itself has become complicated, especially their new editor which I don’t like.Bigger question is: – where is David Karp going?

    1. CJ

      Bigger question is: – where is David Karp going?And why wouldn’t he buy it for $3MM?

      1. William Mougayar

        Because it came with 200 people on the payroll 😉

  4. Tom Hughes

    This reminds me that the first social network coulda/shoulda been Flickr. They had it all — comments, sharing, grouping, all photo-centric. Yahoo ruined them too, mostly by not investing.

  5. awaldstein

    Tumblr made people happy. I was one of them Fred.That is something.How many times have we as entrepreneurs got there and can say the same.Every time I’ve circled close, it is a thrill.Enough said.

  6. Dave Hyndman

    I bailed on Tumblr probably around the same time you did; when our music sharing community dispersed. I still really like to idea of Tumblr: an easy way to share many types of content (music, images, links, quotes) and a way to build a sub-community.I’m hoping they can make a few good, early moves that may revive interest … and maybe even bring our music sharing group back together.

  7. jason wright

    “simplicity, not complexity.”‘Truth’.

    1. Thomas Prommer

      I would add performance; Tumblr historically had massive latency and performance issues at a global scale which must have impacted user engagement and engagement both on the publisher and subscriber side.

      1. jason wright

        Was that before and after the sale, or only after?

        1. Thomas Prommer

          I wanna say before and after.

          1. jason wright

            Which adds to the head scratching about Yahoo’s thinking and even its due diligence. Did Y really understand what it was buying?

  8. narikannan

    It’s a short attention span world these days! Unless it’s for work or some personal issue that compels you to read or write long form, short bursts of attention is all you are going to get! From information to applications it needs to be mobile friendly first. Max 15 seconds!

  9. Tom Labus

    Has Karp ever tried to buy the company back?YHOO flight plan: fly directly into large mountain at top speed!!

  10. creative group

    CONTRIBUTORS:the common denominator is Yahoo had Engineers trying to run various business models they were unqualified to run.Jerry Yang made a great decision to invest in Alibaba and it was ruined by selling it by his successors.https://www.forbes.com/site…Everyone involved in selling Alibaba back to Alibaba for $13 should be in a cell. Just pure corporate malfeasance.Captain Obvious!#UNEQUIVOCALLYUNAPOLOGETICALLYINDEPENTANT

  11. LIAD

    1. Loving the positive frame.2. Six Years! Already. Fuck me time flies.

  12. jason wright

    Yahoo’s ability to think straight was totally compromised by its Alibaba stake.

    1. sigmaalgebra

      A certain fashion magazine, maybe Vogue, photograph,https://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext…should have been symptomatic?But, but, but, she was at GOOGLE!!!!!

      1. jason wright

        In Vogue? How ironic. Slip sliding away.

  13. jonathanmarcus

    It would have been very interesting to see Tumblr evolve independently instead of being sold to Yahoo. At the time though, Tumblr had a massive infrastructure burn, no revenue or revenue plan, and probably wasn’t in a position to continue on independently. An interesting takeaway that you didn’t discuss above was the lack of a business model or revenue plan. USV always liked to say that businesses gravitate to a native business model after scaling. This never happened for Tumblr and was definitely among its biggest issues.

  14. sigmaalgebra

    Apparently there is a fundamental problem with social computing: Generally social is fickle, subtle, subject to fads that both come and go, and often just inscrutable. That Facebook works and works much better than MySpace and lots of alternatives is amazing.And apparently social runs into not being safe for children, families, or work.Not every application on the Internet is 15 seconds to happiness nor should that be the only standard.By the way, somehow, maybe with a lot of JavaScript, Disqus has badly BROKEN the standard HTML “multi-line text box” functionality,So, a routine use of the operation paste can add many blank lines between each pair of paragraphs. And commonly the cursor just will NOT stay where put it and when start typing goes to the end of the box. We’re talking badly broken.This situation has been the case for months. Someone should go to the Disqus development shop and see if everyone is just asleep or really dead.My solution is usually to type into my favorite text editor and use my favorite spell checker and favorite tool to check for a word entered twice, move the result to the system clipboard, and paste it into the Disqus text box.My favorite text editor works GREAT, makes even an HTML multi-line text box that works look like a clay tablet and makes the mess Disqus created look like insane howling in the dark.

  15. tnorthcutt

    FYI, Fred, Automattic has purchased Tumblr. WordPress and Automattic are not the same thing: https://poststatus.com/reso

    1. MikeSchinkel

      Yep Travis. Automattic is not WordPress, but WordPress decisions are (effectively) made by Automattic. Any so it goes…

  16. Steven Roussey

    I think Tapatalk would have been a better acquirer.

  17. Paul

    Seriously? Tumblr devolved to a porn site long ago. . .which explains the value destruction.

  18. JLM

    .From $0 to $1,000,000,000 to $3,000,000 is a roller coaster that encompasses a myriad of good and bad judgments.The entire human race has a finite amount of available interest to invest in any bit of digital Internet minutia. It is also demographically faddish and volatile. Mercurial gets a lap or two.For strategic acquisitions to be strategic plays, somebody has to have and deploy an actual strategy.Yahoo is where good ideas went to die because of their management and its lack of a coherent strategy.This feels like stumbling on a pile of bones and trying to decide how long ago the skeleton died.The energy focus of the digital Illuminati has moved on and isn’t circling back. The winners have gone home with all the eyeballs.USV gets high marks for hopping off the merry-go-round before the thing disintegrated.RIPJLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  19. gmalov

    Although Tumblr never reached its full potential, it did deliver big – Yahoo liquidity event, high value for those blessed few.Post acquisition, Tumblr’s value was eventually marginalized, due to many factors but l’ll point to one – most people can’t even describe what tumblr is. This is a problem for many reasons, but fundamentally, your product definition and market positioning is essential to building a thriving platform; one that self-reinforces the right connections being created between its technology and users (market).

    1. MikeSchinkel

      Exactly. How many people ever said “I’m going to Tumblr that” such that almost anyone knew what it meant. Compare that to “tweet.”

  20. spacejam

    Former employee here. The rumor is that Verizon was planning on banning adult content in the hopes of increasing advertising revenue, even before the latest app store scuffle. That was just the event that expedited the process, and is why the ML models used to auto-detect adult content performed so poorly etc…Tumblr advertising was on a great trajectory before Y! decided to move all of the Tumblr sales team into their crappy purple times square office, and forcing them to work on Y! products that they had no passion for. That was a dagger in the heart for Tumblr ad sales, and left no other alternative than to integrate more tightly into the Y! moneyball ad system that served teenagers mortgage ads in-place of the weird and genuinely engaging content marketing that Tumblr was a pioneer with.Why did they move the sales team? Marissa decreed that Tumblr would make $100m annual (revenue? profit? I forget which) a year after the acquisition, and it sent the Y! bean counters to work trying to find ways of cooking the books to make it “seem” like Tumblr was doing better than it was. This led to the decision to move all the sales people over to Y! while completely ignoring how passionate their entire team was about being a part of Tumblr. Their last week in the office was a very sad time for the whole company, because unlike at a lot of tech companies where the sales team is just the a-holes nobody like engaging with, they were a fun part of the extremely social company culture.The adult content ban was a deeply disappointing moment for internet culture overall, as it was one of the few places where underrepresented groups were able to create and engage with this kind of content in a way that they had more power around the narrative for, unlike so many testosterone-driven cesspools that dominate the adult entertainment market. I hope WP is able to return it to its roots, and I think they could stand to benefit a lot if they returned to the previous content marketing strategy that had lots of Tumblr users genuinely engaging with really weird and funny ads that the Tumblr creative team worked with brands to create.<3

  21. Joe Lazarus

    Tumblr in those early days was the best online community I’ve been a part of.

  22. Susan Rubinsky

    WordPress (WP) is going to slowly loose market share as web-based website building applications gain more dominance and add deeper structure and functionality UNLESS it restructures organizationally to focus on becoming a web-based building platform. Maybe this acquisition is an attempt by WP to restructure itself into the web-based website building application space. How they will use Flickr to do this remains to be seen.Originally, WP gained market share by morphing a blogging application into a web building application. In a very clunky structural way in my view. Only in recent years did they finally do a rebuild from the ground up that eliminated a lot of bad structure and underlying code. BUT it was generally impossible to upgrade existing WordPress sites without a complete site rebuild as well. Not sure if WP has the right vision to successfully morph* again and gain enough traction in the growing web-based website building application space.*That last organizational decision to do a complete ground-up rebuild of the application to remove clunky code and structure but to exist in the same context as it always had was not very visionary. It fixed a lot of problems in the existing space but did not contemplate what’s next.If you look at the data, WP tops the market share on CMS usage at 34%. This is all versions of WP combined but how many legacy WP sites are going to jump to new WP or chose to rebuild on a different platform that has a lot more click-and-go functionality than current WP? And that’s the key. There are some serious contenders/disruptors climbing the ladder. If you look at the chart (see link below), a lot of the listed apps/platforms are legacies that are falling down the ladder but it’s key to look carefully and note which ones are climbing up the ladder (some in stealth mode, others — like Square Space — in plain sight.)https://w3techs.com/technol…

    1. MikeSchinkel

      Just curious; how do you define a “web-based building platform” and who do you believe will lead this space?I have taken a look at the many solutions like Squarespace, Duda et.al. and find them lacking. I have been working with development and developers since 1987 and every year I become more firmly convinced that UI-driven web builders will never be anything other than a niche solution. I also feel that any company that building their solution on a proprietary application builder is tying their fate to the application builder’s fortune and allowing themselves to be vulnerable to the whims of their management.BTW, it is very possible to upgrade existing WordPress sites without a site rebuild. I am currently working with a company of 400+ with eight (8) sites who use WordPress to drive the vast majority of their sales — training courses — for which they deliver on a more specialized online platform. And I am helping them re-architect all their WordPress sites incrementally, but it does take expertise that a lot of people who build WordPress sites do not appear interested in learning.About the only market where I can see Squarespace, Duda etc. to be a reasonably good fit is where there is very little budget or management bandwidth to implement a site. For those customers — and there are more than enough of them to make a market — just okay is better than nothing at all.-MikeP.S. SmugMug bought Flickr, not Automattic. Freudian slip?

      1. Susan Rubinsky

        Yes, you’re right. I meant Tumblr, not Flickr (in my mind they are the same damn name. Unintentional mind-switch on my part)I work deeply in this space. It is extremely difficult to upgrade existing WP sites, especially older ones where the structure/taxonomy was an afterthought. Each upgrade scenario is a unique decision as you point out in your example. I never chose WP as a solution for any of my custom implementations so I don’t have the deep knowledge of one who has his hands in the thick of it. Back in the day, I only did CMSMS and, later Drupal (I chose Drupal as the platform of choice for my clients compared with WP and Joomla when switching from CMSMS about seven or eight years ago — just had much better security and taxonomy/structure at that time plus a whole lot of other* benefits)*At that time, I would tell my clients, you can pay less now to implement with WP, but pay more over time for maintenance and security updates. That turned out to be true.I understand your point about Web-based applications (eg, SquareSpace, Duda, etc.) WP owns what I call the “middle tier” — the “semi-custom” place where web-applications are not enough but a full custom solution is out of budget. But that middle place is closing in from below and above. Acquia (with Drupal) is far ahead of WP in creating an enterprise level solution and Drupal is slowly losing all it’s legacy and smaller implementations to web-based. In turn, the web-based solution just keep getting stronger and more robust in features. Duda in particular rolled out deeper navigation structure about a year ago which meets a lot needs in the marketplace. From a cost standpoint, I can implement a 100-500 page site in Duda for a fraction of the cost for WP. And, there is literally no maintenance costs except the annual hosting fee. When selling to clients it’s a no-brainer.Cost for Duda $10K implementation + annual hosting fee = $264/annual (for their mid-tier solution currently)Same site in WP: $40K implementation + annual hosting fee ($200/annual, estimated) + WP maintenance & security updates (approx $500.00/mo)Straight up, it’s a no brainer to jump to web-application. Plus, the web-applications are so easy to use, you can train the client staff to do most of the updates.

  23. Pepper

    “Tumblr was a happy place and using it made people feel good about themselves.”Disagree

  24. jason wright

    For only a $billion? Bumblr.

  25. jason wright

    The question is ‘what is David Karp up to now’?What’s he doing with those 200 million ‘universal credits’ we all handed to him? ‘Good’?

  26. aminTorres

    A few days late to this but wish Karp had bought it back.