Verizon is acquiring Yahoo for $4.83 billion in cash—and along with it, Tumblr, the Internet’s quirky link sharing network with 65 million users by last count.
To any fan of the service, the reaction may be something along the lines of, "What will happen to Tumblr? Will Verizon ruin it? Or worse, will it shutter it??" In reality, Tumblr may barely be on Verizon’s radar right now. Meanwhile, even though Yahoo stayed true to its promise to leave Tumblr alone after acquiring it for $1 billion in 2013, some Tumblr editors think the company should have done more to push the envelope and keep the service relevant.
And the growth figures back them up. Tumblr launched in 2007. It had 6 million users by 2010 and has 65 million users today. Seems alright, until you compare them to the trajectories of Snapchat, which launched in 2011 and has 100 million users, and Instagram, which launched in 2010 and has 400 million users. Tumblr is big for sure, but the company hasn't exploded with exponential growth that's expected in this industry.
So what will happen to Tumblr? And could its new parent company do some good?
Tumblr is a social media giant by any measure. It was the crown jewel of Marissa Mayer’s acquisitions at Yahoo. But it’s only about one eighth of the size of Instagram or Snapchat. And it’s not making media rounds like Tinder or Pokémon Go. In this sense, Tumblr is a lot like its parent company Yahoo; quietly big, but smaller and less powerful than its peers.
Which is why Shar VanBoskirk, a VP, and principal analyst at Forrester, doesn’t think Verizon is even planning how to use Tumblr at all at this point. "I don't think Tumblr is the primary asset that Verizon is interested in," she writes. "If they did nothing different than Yahoo has over the last few years, they still get Yahoo's core user base, audience data, and will make back the cost of the acquisition in one year."
This is the primary reason Verizon is so interested in Yahoo. On one side, Verizon offers Internet, cable TV, and wireless plans. Yahoo, with 600 million users of its own, will help fill in the holes in customer data across this network. Verizon is after the data consumption habits on this crowd, and the advertising opportunity they represent.
"Verizon wants Yahoo to fill out its omni channel content and advertising play. The more access to customer data it has (online through Yahoo and AOL, in home via cable boxes, on mobile via smart devices), the more targeted it can be with advertising," writes VanBoskirk. "This allows Verizon to create better ad products, which is competitive against primarily online giants (Google) and creates a better user experience, which is competitive against other cable and telecom providers."
Ultimately, this allows Verizon to become what VanBoskirk calls an "onmnichannel concierge," a service that owns the pipes, and the content, to deliver "choreographed customer experiences," or what I imagine to be the most ultimate, relevant Facebook ads and sponsored content you can imagine, like some hyper-specific Target ad for a new pair of shoes, that plays on your Verizon phone, that you were fed specifically because you'd been looking at those shoes on QVC earlier, and read an article on the "Top 10 Shoes for Summer" on The Huffington Post.
But where does this leave Tumblr? Given that Verizon already owns AOL (which includes media properties like The Huffington Post and TechCrunch), it’s easy to imagine Tumblr being integrated into these media properties—and of course, ad buys. But as VanBoskirk explains, that’s all "icing on the cake" because Verizon doesn’t even need Tumblr to make this deal profitable, fast. And as a result, Tumblr may continue to skate by, mostly untouched, as it did at Yahoo.
Hooray! If Verizon doesn’t touch Tumblr, it can’t ruin the service. Except, as much as we all hate change, services need it. Imagine if Facebook were still a college directory, or if Google was just a search bar. The best products continue to evolve; that’s how they stay relevant. And some of Tumblr’s popular editors would like to see the service adapt more aggressively.
"I always thought that Tumblr was not very much of a fit with Yahoo and I was surprised when they bought it. But nothing changed with Tumblr, Yahoo luckily kept a hands-off approach with it," writes João Rocha. "That was both a blessing and a curse because I don't think that Yahoo ever considered what they had or tried their best in nurturing it, as is typical with Yahoo to be honest."
Rocha is the founder of the popular Tumblr blogs 2 Kinds of People and Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things. He admits that he barely taps the real social potential of Tumblr, preferring to use it as a simple blogging tool than a means to follow subcultures. But it’s obvious to him why Tumblr’s growth and value may be stagnating, while no one knows what to do with it next.
"Yahoo tried its best to let Tumblr grow on its own, without any corporate influence but I feel they also failed to steer the ship," writes Rocha. "Tumblr is a hard community to join or ‘get.' Usually your real-life friends are the same as your Facebook or Instagram friends and the interactions are sort of the same. Tumblr is different. It's usually where you reveal more about yourself than what most people around you know, where you can often 'reveal' your tastes and habits, which is why it's home to such a different community, and it's harder to get that, and to nurture it, and drive it forward. Honestly, with Verizon in the picture I see Tumblr's future becoming something akin to Wordpress. They'll fail to grasp what their users want as Yahoo did before them. It will become a service instead of a community. I don't know if they'll succeed in this move or not, but all in all, rough roads are ahead for everyone as Verizon tries to figure this out."
Rich Oglesby, founder of the widely followed Tumblr Prosthetic Knowledge, agrees. He’d already felt the network had been declining around the purchase by Yahoo, as the new wave Internet art community he’d been covering seemed to be sharing their own art on the service less and less. But he points specifically to Tumblr’s tools as part of the problem. While services like Instagram and Snapchat constantly experiment with integrated apps like Boomerang, Tumblr took a more hands-off approach to pushing media forward within its own UX.
"Tumblr is a product of the laptop era, and I don't feel it has made much progress in the age of the smartphone—given that the smartphone has produced Instagram and Snapchat, it never offered any compelling competition," writes Oglesby. "It made a GIF-making feature on its app toward the end of last year, which is far too late in my opinion—this should have been done at least a year or two before."
Oglesby also points out that these sorts of missed opportunities come at a big cost, as Twitter has adopted some of Tumblr’s iconography—the red heart to like a post, and the repost button, all while allowing video and GIF uploads. "They have benefitted from Tumblr's lack of development," writes Oglesby. And in this sense, he’s worried the writing is already on the wall for Tumblr, and that it could be the new MySpace—a cultural phenomenon that culture has already left behind.
Maybe the real hope for Tumblr under Verizon is that the network isn’t forgotten or left alone, but positioned as a relatively untapped source of revenue for Verizon—something that could contribute billions of dollars for Verizon each year rather than fall short of projections.
Leveraging the full weight of AOL’s properties, Tumblr could become the social glue holding all of these services together. Verizon’s Facebook, if you will. And with more investment—maybe in the mixed-media experimentation we see Instagram, Snapchat, and countless other platforms embracing—Tumblr could become an irresistible app again, distributed across Verizon’s monstrous network of Internet, TV, and smartphones. If Verizon revamps the UX and sells the right ads, Tumblr could still become a juggernaut in its own right.
But would that service still be Tumblr?
"Verizon has two choices in my view. They can either let everything as is, and Tumblr will forever be a small service you provide for the benefit of a small quirky community that nobody gets or is able to make money out of, or they change what Tumblr in essence is," writes Rocha. "I doubt there's a middle ground here. There might be, since I'm not exactly business savvy, but smarter people than me tried and failed. Either way, neither choice will be easy and I guess nobody will be happy with it either way."
"So I'll be honest here, I don't know if Tumblr can ever survive, as it is, once they monetize it," he continues. "As it exists now, it is a community that has survived for so long specifically because it hasn't been spoiled by other interests."