What has hipster microblogging service Tumblr done with the $4.5 million it raised last December during the economic nuclear winter? Not that much.
From a user’s perspective, it’s been small design tweaks now and then. And there’s no obvious movement towards a revenue model.
But this week they unveiled something new! It’s called Sharks vs. Cats — users can bling out their avatar with either a shark icon or a cat icon. Tumblr jokingly calls it “quite possibly the greatest clash of all human civilisation.” Anyway, users seem to be enjoying the little game — not surprising, since pictures of sharks and cats rank among the most popular content on the site.
It’s harmless fun, and Tumblr’s users may get a kick out of it, but it’s actually emblematic of the problems facing the company — and why it hasn’t captured the public’s attention the same way fellow USV-funded microblogging site Twitter has. (See Compete chart below showing Web traffic to Twitter and Tumblr.)
See, Twitter decided early on that it wasn’t going to pander to its original base. Smartly, Twitter decided to ignore the demands of edge-case geek users like Robert Scoble, and instead focus on mass appeal, celebrities, and building out the core platform. The robust and easy-to-use Twitter API has spurred a flourishing ecosystem of third-party apps.
Tumblr’s doing the opposite. Rather than focusing on expanding its audience and making it into a valuable platform, it’s coiling in on itself, doubling down on the un-monetizable memes that its core users love — like pictures of sharks and cats. A non-Tumblr user joining the site would have no idea what the fascination with cats and sharks is all about. It’s totally self-referential.
Meanwhile, the company hasn’t made it any easier for a beginner to add basic features to their Tumblr sites, like a commenting system or custom domain names. As many have pointed out, Tumblr could even generate revenue doing the latter — acting as a domain registrar or GoDaddy partner, and automatically mapping the custom domains. But instead, they still require people to manually register a domain and learn how to map their DNS settings — an intermediate or advanced project, not for beginners. (Tumblr explains, “please ask a friend who’s done this before if you’re uncomfortable with any of the instructions.”)
The chart below tells the story of one company that’s focused on being a platform and a tool for the masses, and one that remains niche. Perhaps Tumblr wants to remain a niche platform, mainly designed for spreading memes among a core set of urban users. And that’s fine — it could be a decent business supporting a handful of people. We just doubt the investors who plunked down $4.5 million last December had that in mind.
Editor’s Update: As expected, this post has stuck a chord among Tumblr’s regular users and the company’s executives.
Tumblr President John Maloney writes to let us know that he’s “speechless” about this “lame” piece — and backs his argument up with some growth stats. Tumblr has “crossed 50m visitors last month, hitting 800k posts a day and blowing the doors off.” And as for membership growth, our other concern, Maloney says: “membership is exploding (beyond expectations) in concert with all the other reportable numbers. There’s nothing but positives here, with big plans and a strategic approach. Our investors are thrilled.”
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