The sad decline of Tumblr

The blogging platform used to be amazing. Now, it looks doomed.

A sinking ship.
(Image credit: Illustrated | anton_novik/iStock, Tumblr)

Tumblr's announcement that the blogging network will no longer permit pornographic content on its platform has been met with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Predictions of the platform's demise are coming fast and thick, as many users suspect the porn ban will be badly implemented — used to quash content and shutter blogs that should be outside its scope — and mass exodus will soon follow. Users are making detailed guides to transferring all blog content to Wordpress and sending out desperate calls to share contact information so Tumblr-only friends can still connect elsewhere after their digital neighborhood has met its end. A post editing the Tumblr logo into a tombstone with cross on it (Get it? Dead and Puritan!) has picked up 150,000 likes and shares in a day.

I have an interest in all this because I've been a Tumblr user since 2009. I opened my main account somewhat unwillingly in 2010, soon finding Tumblr had a lot to like. Its signature selling point is an intuitive interface that combines blogging and social networking functionality. Think Twitter, but if you could make your posts whatever length you like.

Tumblr is often derided by non-users as a haven of pornographers and communist 14-year-olds who believe they're actually elves or wolves or dragons or some such nonsense — and yes, there is a lot of both. Tumblr is conducive to sharing multimedia content, and its user base has always skewed young. But it's also a big site, and if, like me, you want a Tumblr experience without porn or juvenile fantasy, that's easy to accomplish.

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My own presence on Tumblr has always been politics-centric, and the network has been kind to me. I've built a following of more than 100,000 and seen posts accumulate tens and even hundreds of thousands of shares. That community helped me grow as a writer and land my first book deal. It's been a constant presence in my life for a better part of a decade.

In the early days, Tumblr worked a bit differently than it does now. There was a list of maybe 30 or 40 prioritized categories, or tags — topics like art, music, travel, books, food, and politics. In the latter was where I made my home. For a while each tag had a weekly election of sorts where you'd solicit votes from your followers to move up in that week's rankings. If you got lots of votes (and I estimate "lots" as a double- or, at most, triple-digit number, at least in the politics community), your blog would be featured at the top of that tag's list of topically relevant accounts, called the directory. The stakes were high, because directories were shown to every new user.

I played the directory game well, and my follower count began to snowball. It helped that I'm a libertarian: Tumblr's political scene has always skewed very far to the left, so I stood out. I picked up follows from libertarians, anyone right of center, and those in the pro-civil liberties, anti-war progressive crowd who could stomach our differences on economics.

The directory system was eventually shut down and a new center for Tumblr's political community (as well as those 40-ish other tags) was introduced. It was a feed of hand-curated content, with about a dozen rotating editor positions assigned to prominent users by Tumblr staff. This system was oddly personal and aristocratic and engendered a fair bit of complaint, but it served with some success as a common space for each curated tag's community. I was an editor for several months and enjoyed it.

That's all gone now. There's no more directory or curated tags. There's no center to the politics community at all. Well-intended functionality changes have made in-depth conversation and debate more difficult. Nearly all the well-known political bloggers have deactivated or abandoned their accounts.

On a larger scale, corporate buyouts — Tumblr by Yahoo in 2013 and Yahoo by Verizon in 2017 — have been poorly received by users. Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer promised "not to screw it up," but consensus holds that Tumblr did indeed get screwed.

Tumblr has always held its data close, so this is speculative, but I'd estimate a majority of blogs on the network are defunct or close to it. (I personally maintain a single active blog while sitting on four inactive ones I have no intention of reviving or shuttering.) External analytics indicate user growth, traffic, and creation of new posts are all way down. The total blog count keeps rising, but what good is that if half or more are deserted? I support the porn ban, but realistically it will lead to even more account abandonment and deactivation — though probably not the network's total extinction.

The prospect of moving my personal site off the Tumblr network someday feels increasingly inevitable but also extremely lonely. I've always been bad at building online contacts and loved how Tumblr made blogger-to-blogger networking easy. Having a measurable following has been a source of encouragement, too, a constant reassurance to content creators like me that we aren't just shouting into the void.

When Tumblr really does die, there will be much to mourn.

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