David Karp’s Tumblr, which Yahoo bought back in 2013, serves primarily as a blogging platform. Some people use it to curate photos. Others obsess over fandoms.
Some Tumblr users with more followers aren’t just posting and reblogging, though. They’re actually getting free stuff and making money from the platform by linking their blogs to their Amazon wish lists and PayPal accounts.
Their followers — the people who buy them stuff — don’t seem to expect anything in return.
A quick search on Tumblr for “Amazon wish list” yields hundreds of results.
Mostly it’s people posting their own wish lists to the website, or posting a picture of a gift they have received from a follower via Amazon wish list. A lot of these results are NSFW (think sex toys), but even more of them weren’t — they were just pictures of people thanking their followers for sending them a funny hat or a cute pair of cat tights (seriously).
This trend is popular enough that one Tumblr user wrote a tutorial to help others create their own wish list and embed a link to it on their blogs.
Apparently there are dudes on Tumblr who really like just spending money on girls’ Amazon wish lists, too.
To have enough of a following that people on a blogging website buy you gifts generally means you’re pretty popular, as some users point out.
To the average person, this sounds too good to be true: you post a link to your Amazon wish list, and nice people on the internet buy you stuff.
For the user with the wish list, it’s secure: they don’t have to give our their address to anyone. Amazon obscures your address, so your followers just decide which item they want to buy you from the wish list you’ve created, they pay for it, and it shows up at your door.
It seems to be a way for people to interact with their friends on the platform, in the same way that you’d buy your offline friend a gift for their birthday.
Here’s a post from someone who came home to a package from their Amazon wish list:
Most people seem to expect nothing in return. However, some users post wish lists and promise to follow their followers back, either on Tumblr or another platform, or reblog their selfies. Such is the commoditization of the internet.
We reached out to a dozen Tumblr users who had written posts about their Amazon wish lists to see if they wanted to talk to us for a story. We didn’t hear back from almost any of them. A lot of Tumblr users seem to be really big into anonymity, so this wasn’t really surprising.
However, we managed to track down one Tumblr user who told us a little more about how the Amazon wish list strategy worked for her. Her name is Rachel, and before she deleted her Tumblr at the end of 2014 — “I kind of dipped out of Tumblr because it’s gotten too hateful and childish,” she told us — she had about 5,000 followers.
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our interview with her.
Business Insider: So let’s start at the beginning. When did you initially start using Tumblr, and what drew you to the platform? How did you engage with your followers?
I had a friend who was a couple years older than me and she always used Tumblr, so she kind of put me on to the website.
I made my first Tumblr in 2010 and used it to mostly reblog other peoples posts or post pictures of my nails, art, and personal life. I interact with my followers through comments or messages back or forth. I have met some of my best friends from Tumblr.
BI: When and why did you decide to incorporate a wish list for your followers? (You have a PayPal button too, right?)
When I first made the wish list I was just having fun looking through things on Amazon saying “hmm, that would be cool to have!” I never thought or expected anybody to buy me anything off of it. I was planning on using it for my own use, just as a catalogue of things I wanted to buy eventually if I had extra money. I posted my wishlist around my birthday since I had friends from Tumblr who wanted to get me a gift.
My PayPal button was the same kind of thing: I just put it up there for my birthday thinking nothing of it. I landed in the hospital in 2013 and when I got out later I had received a message from a follower of mine. He had used my PayPal button to donate to me with a message that said something along the lines of “I noticed you were in the hospital, hope you take this money and do something fun.” I just about cried. It was so nice!
That follower and I are friends now and he’s helped me multiple times with money when I lost my job and couldn’t pay rent, or when I was doing bad financially. Sometimes I would get a payment with a message that said “go get some groceries.” My heart swells when I think of how kind that person is to me. We still talk every couple of days.
BI: Were you influenced by other people who had used them and had actually started having their followers buy stuff for them? Or was it just something you decided to toss at your followers?
I honestly just decided I was gonna do it and see what happened. I didn’t expect anything out of it and I still really don’t!
BI: What was the initial response from people? Does it work? What kind of stuff do you have on your wish list? What do people buy for you? How many items have you had purchased for you? What do you think is the total value of the stuff people have bought for you? And in regards to the PayPal button: how does that work? Do you make a lot of money that way?
I don’t get a lot of messages about my wishlist, but the few I did get were hateful. Most of the messages were anonymous people saying something like, “why don’t you buy your own stuff?” or “stop begging on the internet. It’s sad.” Something hateful, you know?
BI: When people buy you stuff, do they tell you it’s them, or do they do it anonymously? Do you have any particularly crazy stories of people buying you stuff?
Usually I got a message of some sort saying “hey, can I buy you something off your wishlist?” or “what’s one item you really want on your wishlist?” I’ve only had a couple anonymous buys and they were small things like makeup remover or socks. I usually take a picture of myself wearing the item and send a “Thanks! I love it!” along. I still can’t believe five thousand people cared about my life, and I really can’t believe some of those people are willing to give a gift.
BI: Why do you think people buy stuff for you? Is there any return on investment for them? And if not…why would they buy stuff for you?
I honestly have no idea why anybody would buy me anything. I don’t give them anything back in return other than a thank you and a post!
BI: Have you observed this as a trend across Tumblr, and if so, why do you think it’s happening?
I’ve noticed a lot of cute girls having a wishlist. I think this trend is kind of cool because I have friends all over the world from Tumblr and sometimes when i have a little extra money I’ll pop by their Amazon and gift them something because I’m not able to take them to lunch or go to a movie together. I guess it’s a way to show that people care?
We reached out to Tumblr for comment on this story, but didn’t receive a response from the company.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.