It’s not every 25-year-old who can boast a company that hosts nearly 50 million blogs and, as of this week, 20 billion posts. For that one 25-year-old who can, the 20-billion-post mark was barely a blip on the radar. “We didn’t even do anything to celebrate,” admits David Karp, founder and CEO of short-form blogging platform Tumblr, “but it’s pretty neat.” “How different is 19 billion from 20 anyway?” quips Tumblr’s newly minted Editor-In-Chief Chris Mahoney.
The duo spoke to a captive audience of MCC undergraduates last night during Professor Aaron Cohen’s Rise of Internet Media class. Kicking off the conversation, Prof Cohen asked the two men what their earliest memories of the Internet was. This question brought Karp back to the AOL chat rooms of yore, where he and his friends would spend hours sharing gossip and swapping music and images. This, he insisted, was what was valuable about the Internet to him, this ability to create and share your creations. But as the Internet developed, the only tools Karp could find were ones built with writers in mind, and he never saw himself as just a writer. True, there were sites that catered to specific forms of creation – photography, illustration, filmmaking – but Karp was looking for one central place for creators to come together to create and share their work.
Rather than wait for this service to come along, Karp decided to make one for himself. Tumblr, he revealed somewhat sheepishly, actually started as a set of tools he developed for his own personal blog. What he wanted was a one-stop-shop where he could share images, videos, text and other media in a highly customizable and easily shareable framework. As his blog developed, Karp suddenly realized that other people would probably really love these tools. And thus, became Tumblr.
The history of the Internet has been a fascinating vacillation between the rise of niche sites and the rise of aggregators. In the beginning were homepage sites like GeoCities and Angelfire, where users revelled in this new networked medium, creating sites to cater to nearly any imaginable hobby, niche or interest (Editor-in-Chief Mahoney fondly recounted his first blog, a Christopher Walken fanpage). In response to this content boom, services emerged to help web surfers navigate this dense network by aggregating and providing search and browsing tools, attempting to help an audience still new to the Internet make sense of all this new content. Later, Web 2.0 took hold, and blogging platforms (Livejournal, Xanga) and medium-specific sharing sites (Flickr, YouTube) raged into popularity, giving Web users even more opportunities than ever before to post their thoughts and share their art. However, with the increase of these opportunities also came the increasing burden to figure each out and keep track of them all, and old content-aggregators just weren’t doing the trick anymore.
Karp saw this obstacle as an opportunity. What the Web needed, he thought, was a place where people could post and share content without requiring a ton of work. He sees in Tumblr three often overlapping groups of users: creators, curators, and the audience. What Tumblr does, he says, is gives creators the tools to express themselves, while also giving curators the means to cultivate and share the things they find interesting, and offering audiences ways to search and browse through these various sites. All this while maintaining an impressive ease of use on the site, regardless of how you’re using it.
What has resulted is a unique community where no one medium, niche or user can boast significant domination over any other. Fashion is one of the most popular topics on Tumblr, but only accounts for 16% of posts; the top 250 blogs on the site only account for 4% of all traffic (and these are statistics that Karp is throwing out completely off the cuff – the man knows his company inside and out). Where Facebook’s network is perhaps just a digital reflection of the people you’ve known in your offline life, and Twitter is a combination of your friends and your favorite celebrities, Tumblr appears to be a new kind of network comprised entirely of people who dig what you dig.
The Q&A portion of the talk reaffirmed this, with some students pointing out that this seems to be a theme with today’s Internet. Other websites, the most notable of which is newcomer Pinterest, are acknowledging this drive among Web users to curate, share, and connect based on similar interests. Does Tumblr see this is a threat? Karp kind of laughed off the question. To him, Tumblr is a unique enough community that he just wants to focus on doing what he can to offer more and better tools to his users. Maybe this is a theme, he says. Maybe what we’re looking at is the coming of the Internet Singularity, where everything you like and everyone you know is on the same site. Till then, he shrugs, we’re going to keep doing what we do best: providing tools so people can keep creating, sharing, and seeing new things.