Tumblr, without ever really leaving, is back (apparently)

Kyle Chayka, writing for the New Yorker, How Tumblr Became Popular for Being Obsolete:

Tumblr is something like an Atlantis of social networks. Once prominent, innovative, and shining, on equal footing with any other social-media company, it sank under the waves as it underwent several ownership transfers in the twenty-tens. But it might be rising once more. […]

Tumblr’s C.E.O., Jeff D’Onofrio, told me recently that forty-eight per cent of its active users and sixty-one per cent of its new ones are Generation Z. That’s the same demographic that Facebook and Instagram are concerned about losing.

I would not have used the words “obsolete” and “popular” in the title to describe Tumblr in 2022, but this is fantastic news for Tumblr. I am glad that they survived the late 2010s, but also thrilled to see a new generation embrace its features, under the parenthood of Automattic, the last saviour of the internet.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Tumblr. Whether it is described as a social network, a CMS, or a platform, I have always liked it: not only for its ease-of-use as a CMS, but also as a social graph, as a network of users that I considered to be the “cool folks.”

When friends or family members wondered what should they choose to create a simple website, Tumblr was often the solution I recommended. Despite its social features displayed front and centre on the dashboard (the main feed), it is an incredibly easy way to post things online. And on Tumblr, you could have a real website, not just a walled account like you get on Instagram for instance.

Text, quote, photo, video: the first thing on the dashboard — and on the Tumblr app — is not a question like “What’s happening?” or “What are you doing?”, it is an invitation that could say “What media format do you want to share?” I find this to be very close to what my vision of the web is, and what the old Posterous used to be. You see something cool online, you post it. It is not what you are doing personally, it is what you care about. When most of the low-value early-days tweets started with the words “I am”, Posterous and Tumblr wanted their users to share valuable links and photos.1

Despite its qualities both as a CMS and as a social network, Tumblr was also a format. A format of blog, a format of website, a format of internet humour that seems to have more or less disappeared.2 I remember a time when my coworkers and I used to think “oh this would make a great Tumblr”, meaning that a topic or a joke could easily be exploited for a series of posts without putting much efforts into it, without the need to have someone share it with their own personal Twitter or Facebook account. “A Tumblr blog” was something creative, repetitive, curated, easy to start;3 the persons behind it were not seeking particular attention.4

But I got sidetracked here. This post is not supposed to be a trip down nostalgia road, it is supposed to be a comment on Tumblr’s apparent comeback into relevancy.

Does it mean I can resume recommending it as a viable and easy-to-use CMS for posting things online? Maybe.

Does it mean the internet is a little bit better with Tumblr thriving in it? Absolutely.

  1. Those who have known me for a while will remember my — now gone — Tumblr ventures: Blog oculaire, and Columboldies.↩︎

  2. Some Twitter and Instagram accounts tend to resemble this vibe, but somehow they feel less fun.↩︎

  3. How many of the Tumblr blogs just used one of the default templates?↩︎

  4. Maybe that is why it became less and less relevant in the era of influencers.↩︎