Note: I wrote this article as a guest post for Netzpiloten.de, one of the oldest blogs in the German language on the Internet.
“Maybe everything will be okay, after all. Maybe.” These eight words were the only words I posted on my Tumblr blog isarmatrose.tumblr.com throughout 2019. With them, I commented on the news that Tumblr is now part of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.
Two years after Verizon became the owner of Tumblr following the acquisition of Yahoo, the blogging platform feels like it’s part of the free internet again, not of a global multi-national corporation. But perhaps this development comes too late because Tumblr is no longer what it once was.
Before Yahoo and Verizon became the owners of Tumblr, it was one of the most beautiful places for internet culture on the web. A mixture of Instagram and Twitter (both are by the way younger than Tumblr), but without the negative side effects of the internet, such as hate comments, clickbait, or just advertising.
Contributions could be hearted or reblogged, so-called downvotes like on Reddit were not possible. Also, contributions could not be commented on, which kept hate speech away. For many people, Tumblr was a positive online experience that allowed anonymity and an atmosphere that praised otherness.
First Yahoo, then Verizon – Tumblr as a commodity.
Three years after David Karp and Marco Arment founded Tumblr, there were 20 million users on the platform. It felt like the easiest and fastest way to start your own blog. By the beginning of 2012, there were already more than 39 million blogs. A blogging platform was never again as cool as Tumblr was at that time.
The growth continued even after Yahoo bought the platform in summer 2013 for 1.1 billion US dollars. In January 2014, there were already 293 million blogs, with a total of 133 billion individual posts. Through Yahoo, advertising moved in on Tumblr, and it was annoying, but it was Verizon who really managed to hurt Tumblr.
After two record months in March and June 2018, with about 624 million visitors each, Apple removed the Tumblr app from the iOS store due to discovered child pornography on the platform. Within two weeks, Verizon set up a porn filter that affected all explicit content.
In the first two months after that, the number of visitors dropped by almost a third. A year later, Tumblr’s website traffic has fallen by more than 21 percent. The reason for this was not the ban on pornography, but rather what Tumblr was all about: being different.
Tumblr is a place for the culture of being different.
Tumblr was not an online platform for porn, and yet, like so much on the internet, it was full of it. It doesn’t matter how you feel about pornography, because, in addition to porn, the ban also affected erotica, NSFW art and storytelling (NSFW = Not Safe For Work), which took place here just like corporate communications or Taylor Swift.
Tumblr was the place in the digital world where youth with progressive ideas about politics cavorted, where a fandom culture with queer and feminist users could develop and communicate, where ideas and memes grew into activism, and where there was porn for women, even as GIFs.
None of these topics interested me personally, even if they had any relevance. As a white, heterosexual man, I did not look for them but discovered them. They were different, and I looked at them sometimes with disbelief and sometimes with curiosity. That’s what made Tumblr really attractive to me.
It was here that I learned what else there was that I didn’t know about before. I did not present myself here, like on Twitter or Instagram. On Tumblr, I discovered things I hadn’t had any contact with before. Tumblr was for me what the internet once was in its best sense: a place of boundless diversity.
The internet needs Tumblr.
There was probably nothing on Tumblr that wasn’t there in real life. Both the negative and positive manifestations of our time were visible here. Above all, however, the diversity of life took place here. I believe that this can exist again under Automattic’s leadership. Perhaps. I hope so.
So far, the porn filter still exists. But with a well-thought-out moderation and more self-administration of communities, Automattic could make the cultural debate on somewhat different topics possible again. The recently introduced group chat function seems to be designed in this direction.
There are also other problems to be solved, Russian trolls were active in the last presidential elections, and there is a spam problem, as known from different online platforms. Tumblr is not a lost paradise, but it has always held the flag for tolerance, creativity, and respect on the internet.
While Facebook went from being a symbol of humanity’s interconnectedness and the drive for freedom to a synonym for surveillance and propaganda, and Twitter went from being a haven for freedom of expression to a place for conspiracy theories, Tumblr is unencumbered and has been given a new chance to make things better.
Header Illustration: Diego Cornejo, CC BY-SA 2.0