Is Tumblr the New Social Network for the Youth?

Adam Rifkin is co-founder and CEO of PandaWhale, an online network of interesting things and people. You can follow him on Twitter @ifindkarma.

The landscape of social networking sites for young Americans is ever-changing, and the rise of Tumblr as a popular platform may come as a surprise. According to a survey conducted by Garry Tan in January 2013, Tumblr now enjoys more regular visits from American youth than Facebook. This revelation sparked my curiosity, prompting me to explore the reasons behind this shift. Join me as I delve deeper into the Tumblr network to uncover its allure.

A Complex Tapestry of Engagement

At first glance, one might perceive Tumblr as a platform primarily dedicated to topic-based image blogging. It is seen as a medium for self-expression through the curation of specific themed images. Notable Tumblrs such as “Things Organized Neatly,” “Girls in Yoga Pants,” and “Food on my Dog” reinforce this perception, with Tumblr itself highlighting this type of content in The Tumblr Directory.

However, this initial assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. While these Tumblrs play a role in the system, they represent only a fraction of the platform’s appeal.

An Unexpected Path to Success

Tumblr thrives because it defies the traditional blogging model. Bloggers often struggle to find and cultivate an audience, causing many to abandon their blogs. Conversely, blogs that do attract an audience tend to focus on producing similar content to maintain their readership. In simple terms, more pageviews lead to more content.

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But Tumblr operates on a different principle. A considerable portion of Tumblr users actively avoid seeking out an audience. They prefer to remain undiscovered, sharing their tumblogs only with a select group of close friends. This explains why Tumblr’s search functionality is often criticized—it caters to the majority of its user base.

For its users, Tumblr provides a privacy-control strategy as old as the internet itself: security through obscurity and the use of multiple pseudonyms. They value a simple approach they can quickly grasp over the intricate privacy controls found on platforms like Facebook, which demand time and patience. To quote a viral internet sensation, Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”

Tumblr’s success hinges on whether it facilitates connections between users who already know each other in real life, rather than solely focusing on public or private interactions.

Unveiling the Tumblr Tapestry

The majority of content shared on Tumblr can be divided into three categories:

  1. Photos chronicling daily life: These snapshots capture moments of studying, shopping, and hanging out with friends. Many originate from Instagram or the Tumblr mobile app, which boasts excellent functionality.
  2. Entertaining memes and gifs: Users eagerly scour other Tumblrs for re-bloggable content to post on their own Tumblogs. The platform’s dashboard is designed specifically to facilitate content consumption and easy reblogging. This is where thematic photobloggers add value to the ecosystem, and why Tumblr actively promotes “rebloggable” content, such as live-Tumbling events like The Grammys.
  3. Personal collections of adult content: Hidden under different pseudonyms, Tumblr hosts a plethora of adult-oriented and near-pornographic material. (Protip: search results for certain keywords differ significantly depending on the time of day. There’s also a Not Safe For Work setting if you wish to avoid such content.)
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Animated gifs, with their ability to capture a ten-second reaction shot or a powerful sequence of actions, differentiate Tumblr from the static environments of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even Pinterest. Gifs are easily viewable on mobile devices and have remained largely uncontested by copyright claims.

Sound familiar? Teenagers, amusing images, exclusive sharing? In some ways, Tumblr can be seen as Facebook 2.0. As Facebook becomes a socially interconnected network encompassing parents, colleagues, former friends, and barely acquainted acquaintances, Tumblr has become a haven for young people seeking genuine self-expression and sharing with their true friends.

The Growing Influence

Tumblr’s meteoric rise has solidified its position as one of the top 10 websites in the United States, attracting a staggering 20 billion pageviews per month. Its user engagement has enabled the company to quietly build a powerful Interest Graph, compiling the things its users genuinely like and want to share. While monetization remains a challenge, this Interest Graph will prove vital in ensuring targeted and relevant content delivery.

Importantly, Tumblr is not replacing Facebook; it is merely diverting some authentic liking and sharing, particularly from young Americans. Facebook’s continued relevance stems from its role in users’ public-private lives, where they interact with family, siblings, lame friends, and even moms. As long as parents catch glimpses of their children on Facebook occasionally, they are unlikely to seek them out on alternative platforms. This paradoxically grants young users a seemingly private stage to express themselves, despite being on the open web.

Image via

In conclusion, Tumblr’s appeal lies in its ability to offer young Americans a digital environment where they can freely express their genuine interests and engage with their trusted friends. The platform’s innovation in animated gifs, coupled with its user-centric approach, positions it as a formidable contender in the social networking realm. While challenges remain, Tumblr’s evolving Interest Graph promises a future marked by relevant and personalized content delivery.

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Experience the world of Tumblr for yourself. Join the youth movement on Six Minute Dates.