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Tumblr the Day After (ma.tt)
118 points by feross 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments

"Automattic is still a startup — I’m sure there are deep-pocketed private equity firms that could have outbid us, but the most likely outcome then would have been an “asset” getting chopped up and sold for parts. [...] Instead, Tumblr has a new chance to redefine itself in 2019 and beyond."

I think Matt is right to point out the real story here. Automattic is simply the right home for Tumblr. Perhaps similarly to how SmugMug is the right home for Flickr.

Automattic is a company with a commitment to the open web and to effortless digital publishing. That was Tumblr's original vision, too, before it got lost in in the Yahoo/Oath/Verizon behemoth.

Automattic is a company with a long-term vision for what the open web means and how to monetize it so that valuable services can simplify lives for site operators, at scale. Just think of how many blogs and sites (and businesses) Automattic has enabled via WordPress.com, WooCommerce, etc. They can apply that same know-how to Tumblr's community, no matter how neglected it might have been in the Verizon era.

Verizon probably had no clue what to do with Tumblr as an asset, and I am sure they considered doing an orderly wind-down to focus on their core. This was a much classier alternative.

As Matt mentioned, Verizon does $130B in annual revenue. Tumblr was probably a strange distraction for them and had no chance of moving their KPIs as a business.

Automattic's acquisition of it was probably the best possible outcome, for Tumblr's technical & management team, for Tumblr's community, and, most importantly, for its future potential impact on site operators and independent web publishers everywhere.

100% agree that of the list of realistic outcomes, Tumblr going to Automattic is one of the best possible outcomes.

That said, and I know this is said a lot, but I really wish our industry would stop trying to label everything a "startup". Automattic was founded in 2005 and has 1000 employees. It's not a startup, it's a mature medium size tech company. Its problems are not startup problems, they're mature medium size tech company problems. Automattic isn't even a clear underdog considering the dominance of WordPress.

To be clear, that's not a pejorative: Automattic kicked ass, and Automattic deserves its current success. But the phrasing is a sticking point for me in how people talk about tech companies because it ends up feeding into how we perceive working at these companies. When I was job searching, I saw job postings regularly where "startup" or "like a startup" are used to invoke a cultural image for companies that are already post-growth-stage.

I hate the startup talk too. After a few years you are no startup anymore. Maybe you are a successful or a struggling business but not a startup.

In my company managers think „startup” means to work a lot of overtime and weekends and changing project direction every month.

A better term for a successful company long past the startup stage but not having exited via liquidity event is "privately held".

In a privately held company, the investors can manage it as they see fit. They can take profits if they like, or sell their stakes, just not on public markets.

This is really just shorthand for saying "our employees don't hate working at our company as much as the typical large company because we try to limit bureaucracy and politicking and we value / recognize good ideas and actual execution"

Yeah... I'd agree more if that were actually true. In my experience it actually says "we like to think that we limit bureaucracy and politicking." Whether they actually do, you won't be able to tell.

This aspect of language is all signalling but very little actual signal. It's unfortunate.

The diff is that Automattic hasn't yet returned money to its investors -- so it's a startup by that definition.

I'm not familiar with that definition. Can you elaborate and/or provide a couple links? tia

I think its a Growth-Mindset company rather than Dividend-Focused mindset... I agree that its not a startup any more.

I feel like the smart thing for Verizon to do is to sell it to Automattic but maintain some equity.

Does anyone know if they did that?

They're smart enough to do know that they won't be able to develop it under their own management. But having some presumably better managers develop it and maintaining a stake is probably more profitable than simply selling it off to the highest bidder. And definitely more profitable than selling it "for parts", or closing it down.

> First, they chose to find a new home for Tumblr instead of shutting it down. Second, they considered not just how much cash they would get on day one, but also — and especially — what would happen to the team afterward, and how the product and the team would be invested in going forward. Third, they thought about the sort of steward of the community the new owner would be. They didn’t have to do any of that, and I commend them for making all three points a priority.

As nice as it sounds, the realist in me finds a hard time to believe that this is exactly what has happened on Verizon's side.

I have never seen a publicly traded company do these things. Heck, you can be sued by shareholders if you actually do these things.

My interpretation (feel free to correct me, I am just a normal guy on the internet) is that Tumblr was difficult to value, hence PE firms didn't have a clear idea of how much to offer, and Automattic came in with a quick decent offer, and the final price (which I think was not disclosed) was so small for Verizon that they decided to go the easy route, perhaps leaving a few $$ on the table.

My only real interaction with WordPress was when I purchased, and then promptly cancelled, a premium subscription. But the process was so unexpectedly easy and the employee was so unexpectedly nice and helpful. She really bent over backwards to help me even though I was leaving.

It might be silly, but that one interaction coupled with Matt's consistently well spoken/written/thought out public comments lead me to believe he & his company are pretty trustworthy. (The fun little smiley faces & haikus they hide all over the site don't hurt either.)

I hope they got a great deal on Tumblr. It's a really special site and I don't think there are many companies that would have the resources and the motivation to build it back up again. It seems Automattic has both.

Words? Yes. Actions? That's another story. He's spoken about the open web and such things and then willfully jumps into bed with Google and Facebook, etc.

His "Learn JavaScript deeply" might as well been "Hold onto your ass kids, the rich are about to get richer." That is, WP is no longer a tool of the common people but it's going to be elitist (because that makes my investors happy).

Don't get me wrong. No one is perfect. I simply want to make sure people get to see more of the picture, because there is more to see.

Down-voted for what? Honesty? Truth? Or wasting time stating the obvious? God bless you HN.

I downvoted because it sounded like an unproductive rant.

"Instead, Tumblr has a new chance to redefine itself in 2019 and beyond"

So, Matt commented in the other thread that NSFW content is not coming back due to the difficulties around hosting and processing adult content (payment processing, advertising, everything).

Where does Tumblr fit in 2020 between Twitter, Medium, and Instagram? What's its medium?

For me tumblr does best in that you have chains of responses (reblogs) in images/gifs and text form, that then are reposted on one's own blog for their own followers to experience broadly in a singular dashboard whose ordering isn't really manipulated (like twitter and instagram are, to my extreme vexation).

Also, because tumblr makes it easy to create side-blogs, you can follow a favorite person for their specific stuff. For example, if my artist friend has an "inspiration" blog I can follow that blog instead of their "personal/vent" blog. Similarly if I'm looking for some kind of tea-specific blog I can follow a stranger's side blog without needing to also be exposed to the stranger ranting about a political opinion I am uncomfortable with.

Furthermore, it's one of the large social media sites for which there is a significant and semi-permanent resource and groupings for a variety of LGBTQ/diversity/political/fandom interests in a way that is more flexible than a subreddit or an interest forum. You can follow the individual blogs that you're interested in instead of needing to follow a whole community. So if you don't want to be exposed to some aspect of a community it's relatively trivial to just not follow the people involved.

Twitter has a lot of this, but the lack of easy threading posts and out-of-order feed really ruin it for me. Several of my favorite artists left tumblr for twitter and I've had very little success following them from there.

Twitter is the key. Twitter has failed to deliver a sane way to read threads. after all these years I still don't know how to read a conversation. And the whole platform is about conversation ! If Tumblr can get it it right with WP, I won't miss Twitter.

> And the whole platform is about conversation!

I always understood Twitter to be a personal text broadcasting service, i.e. single direction communication, not conversation.

Tumblr already has conversations that you can read, but only everything up to the specific post you found up to a point (you can look in the notes for the reply but it can get messy). Unlike a forum which consists of all the posts, each reblog chain contains each post previously. It also means if you follow both parties in an ongoing chain, each reply will occur in your feed in the reverse order of their posting.

i'm not a huge fan of the way twitter presents threads and conversations, but the few times i've tried to follow a conversation on tumblr i've only found it to be even worse than twitter. i'm not sure tumblr is the saviour we're looking for here.

You're right, but that these millions dollars startups aren't able to do better than phpBB from an UX point of view is dazzling.

I enjoy tumblr for posting gifs made with code: https://dontcode.tumblr.com/

For me it's just a nice/easy place to post stuff & get quick feedback/appreciation. It's also nice to scroll through nice/funny/cute things & sometimes get info on issues that the tumblr community cares about.

I post gifs made of code too. https://testme.tumblr.com

I feel the core audience and aesthetic of tumblr, in its prime, was a beautiful thing. There's a chance to recapture that essence. Twitter, Medium, and Instagram are watered down commercialized pos. Not saying Tumblr will be better than that, but they have an opportunity to do so. There is still a nostalgia in people's mind about Tumblr.

"Instead, Tumblr has a new chance to redefine itself in 2019 and beyond"

I feel like the same thing was said about Napster at some point as well. It's going to take __a lot__ of resources for Tumblr to overcome its status as yet another formerly-hot-but-now-a-has-been (e.g., Yahoo, AOL, MySpace, etc.)

Trumblr had its moment. It had its time. It had its audience. They are all in the past. The odds of it making any sort of comeback - in a Van's sneakers sorta way - are slim (read: close to zero). The cool kids of today just aren't as interested in a brand like Tumblr.

Tumblr will wallow around for bit and then Automattic will merge it into WP.com, or at least the WP platform with a (name) rebranding of some sort. I suppose that falls under MM's "redefine" but somehow I don't think so.

There is still no platform which gives space to those who called (the old) Tumblr home.

As a current/former Tumblr user this is all too real. Like The Tumblr userbase has been scattered across IG, Twitter, Mastodon, Patreon, Reddit but the sentiment is still that we're still homeless right now.

Nowhere on the internet had/has a community like Tumblr: aggressively queer, feminist, full of stupid memes, amazing independent art, obsessive nerdy fans, and this general mood of sillyness and innocence and joy and positivity.

And the porn really was weirdly a reflection of that and part of more people's Tumblr experiences than people are seemingly willing to admit: it catered to niche interests, slanted heavily to by-and-for women, super LGBT friendly, funny and over the top, generally tasteful and artsy, and respectful.

Interesting to also compare and contrast to his post on the initial acquisition by Yahoo:


It's a shame they won't revert the idiotic decision to ban adult content. The sense of freedom of expression and unrestrained creativity gave Tumblr its edge. Without it, it's just another boring blog engine, and this is just a matter of postponing its demise.

I agree with this. There are ways to handle the adult stuff from different angles. I am guessing some people are disagreeing with 'postponing it's demise' -since it's possible to keep chunks of it going with the niches that are there... but I agree with the demise statement. If a stadium use to have 100 million visitors a day and changes to only handle 20 million a day - it is no longer what it once was.

I imagine parts of tumble can be useful for micro-blogging onboarding - their signup process and get to posting process was always better than everyone else in my experience. This can be valuable to automattic / WP.

I could even imagine pushing little tumblr powered niche communities for places like Disney / that are walled from the rest of the networks..

However ejecting the adult content sharing was also a terrible thing not just for expression and sharing, but curating different flows of interests. Tumblr actually showed groups of posts that would curate individual's discovery of erotic and interesting portrayals of erotic imagery - to see these mini books curated by different people - for the people who saw them, it gave you a different perspective of things people might like - one that was not curated by the commercial porn industry, one that did not a/b test for most shocking to get attention / clicks.

Taking those options away is more than a loss of millions of posts per day - it's a loss for humanity in seeing and considering alternative views of beauty.

On top of the, conversations that could be had and knowledge shared around different sexual subjects that are impossible via fbk and the like.

Removing the adult access is almost like buying a couple chains of worldwide bookstores and removing access to all the romance and erotica stories - so it's easier to be a hosting company... however this is leaving a huge hole in global learning and sharing - and it's leaving those folks who may have benefited from different ways of learning and sharing - it's leaving them to the commercial wolves who are willing to fight the censors and other issues that add to the expense of hosting adult.

Which leaves us with commercial producers and the race to the bottom / make a buck any way with a/b filtered click bait stuff that is taking over. It's a loss for humanity truly.

Matt said they're not going to, but I wouldn't count on that being the final word on the subject. He's supportive of adult content in principle, his reasons for maintaining the ban are business reasons. If the community persists in demanding that it be lifted, I wouldn't be surprised to see a business solution present itself in the future.

This is actually a beautiful commentary... kudos to Matt for writing this.

The internet comment section: But what about my pron!!!

I didn't see a single positive comment like this post yesterday. It's refreshing to read a different perspective.

I recently switched from Medium to a static site, but for anyone else looking to switch from medium - this may now be an option again?

I think the real alternative to Medium is Ghost as a hosted or self-hosted version. Depending on your needs and the amount of time you want to spend on it.


I feel like wordpress.com doesn't get a fair shake in these comparisons. It's not the sexy new thing, but it's a perfectly functional, not-annoying blogging platform that's easy for my marketing staff to self-manage. The pricing is reasonable, it doesn't try to throw up all kinds of nag screens to the readers like medium does, and they've been doing the same thing for long enough that I trust they aren't going to pivot to something weird next week.

WriteFreely (or its hosted equivalent, Writeas) is also an excellent option.

Ghost starts at $29/month, it seems, and Medium starts at $0/month, so I don't see them as comparable.

With Medium you don't really have your own site / brand though. You can't use your own domain [1], your users get a paywall pop up when they read your content and the discovery feature that convinced a lot of people at the beginning because they got so much traffic is also not so useful any more.

[1] https://help.medium.com/hc/en-us/articles/115003053487-Custo...

Tumblr has the nicest Feed API out of all the social networks, compared to Twitter Firehose, Facebook Public Feed, and Instagram (we built our own ghetto feed for Instagram by scraping with tons of api tokens).

It would be pretty amazing to have a streaming API of the wp.com universe.

It's been a few years since I had logged into my account. Does Tumblr offer a chronologically ordered feed? I'd consider giving it another go if it works in a way that eschews what's annoying about FB and IG.

It has a "Best Stuff First" option but you can disable it (and it stays disabled)

If, as the post suggests, Tumblr becomes OSS (and especially if it becomes distributed/decentralized), I will gladly start using it. It would--immediately--become the best available free-as-in-speech social network.

I suppose that means Gutenberg is coming to tumblr?

Yahoo bought Tumblr for over a billion. Verizon sold Tumblr for under $20 million. Guess all that NSFW content they banned was worth more than they thought it was...

And/or maybe it was never worth over a billion in the first place.

<$3 mill is the latest number. I agree it was never worth a billion dollars, but tumblr definitely lost a huge amount of value during its stay at Yahoo. You don't just overvalue an asset by 99.8%.

Do you? I have to believe you don't.

Today you do. You overvalue everything by 99% and hope that one thing your invested in pops. Because all the social properties are ad-based, what you really hope for is that your thing will be the thing, at least until you cash out.

The ad dollars generally just flow to whatever is the biggest, whatever is believed to deliver the highest ROI. It doesn't even have to be good, just large and slightly better than everything else.

Tumblr didn't become Facebook or Twitter. But it could have. If something ever manages to deliver ads that are slightly better than FB or Twitter than those disappear as well.

The bar is simultaneously really low and really high. Low because all you have to do is create a platform that delivers ads with an ROI that is slightly better than nothing, at scale. High because that's actually really hard to do. In some cases "better than nothing" is actually too high a bar. A lot of businesses—maybe even the majority—would be better off spending $0 on FB. Google is the only one who can consistently provide a positive ROI, reliably, for most of their customers.

For a while it looked like Tumblr could have done it. They had the users, the growth, the content and probably more data on what people ACTUALLY liked than anyone else has ever had.

This graph provides valuable context on changes in engagement over time, relative to key milestones in the company's history. https://twitter.com/somospostpc/status/1161024458460712962

Don't most VCs overvalue most startups by ~100%? This doesn't seem that crazy to me.

It wouldn't be 99.8%, it had a 99.8% loss, so it was almost a hundred times overvalued, if nothing else caused the drop (which isn't plausible, but still).

Does this put Automattic into the ad business? Or were they already there?

We (Automattic) already run our own ads business: https://wordads.co/

Cool good to know. Likes like a nice bidder stack. Will that be what runs on Tumblr? That is pretty good inventory IMHO if ad units are available.

Does Tumblr run its own and network?

They did, but there was an integration with Verizon's stack. Maybe they will just keep that in place.

I'll say that they clearly don't run many ads. They have a native ad offering that I've never been able to spot in the wild.

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