David Karp discusses Tumblr’s growing pains
The very platform this post is appearing on is undergoing a bit of a revolution. The rise of blogs over the past decade has begun to give way to microblogging platforms, such as Twitter and Tumblr. The difference between the two is that microblogs tend to rely heavily on short bursts of information: links, photos, videos and brief messages. Blogger fatigue gave way to sharing smaller, less labor intensive bits of content.
The short timely updates have not gone unnoticed. Twitter has become something of a wire that provides up to the second reports about breaking news from around the world, used by both large traditional news outlets and freelance reporters. Tumblr is used by ABC journalist Matthew Keys for, among other topics, coverage of the Japan earthquake, which was recognized with a nomination by the Online News Association for the best breaking news by a small site. Until recently, Keys was a freelancer, but his online reporting on microblogging platforms drew attention and led to his recent hire by ABC.
While Twitter’s membership rate grew 26% over the past year, according to Search Engine Journal, Tumblr’s rate has been equally, if not more impressive. According to ComScore, Tumblr attracted 13.4 million visitors in July 2011, up 218% from a year ago (4.2 million in July 2010) along with a staggering
2.5 billion page views per month. 12.5 billion page views per month (according to Quantcast) With tremendous growth comes growing pains, as Twitter once experienced with their own pre-2008 downtime issues.
Now, Tumblr is starting to recover. So I sat down with Tumblr’s founder David Karp, pictured above, last week to discuss how the company has improved. It was readily apparent that the number of hires they’ve made since the last time I visited the office had increased significantly. Karp told me they added 20 engineers in the past year: “Infrastructure is much further along now. We’ve paid down many technical debts to allow ourselves to scale. We’ve created a more distributed, resilient infrastructure.”
As a long-time Tumblr member, I experienced the infrastructure buckling under the demand firsthand. Out of frustration, I vowed to scale back my use of the service until it became more stable. Stability has been one issue with Tumblr, but other issues have crept up as well. Several brands have publicly aired their displeasure with how the company has handled partnership opportunities. One reason that may be the case is because there is no formal process yet for partnerships. Says Karp:
We have no special products available for brands today, though we have several experiments running. Rich [Tong, Tumblr's Fashion Director] and our Outreach team have made it a point to continuously overhaul and reimagine these efforts in the interest of building the best products we can for our community and partners. That includes constantly working with different mixes of partners.
They’ve had some successes, though, with media brands such as Newsweek, NBC News, and ProPublica. Fashion brands, on the other hand, have had mixed reviews. Karp said the following about their efforts thus far:
Although we’re incredibly excited about the early success we’ve had with our partners so far, they’ve overwhelmingly appreciated that these are alpha products with only a basic underlying support infrastructure. That is, of course, the price of the bleeding edge, and we’ve been ecstatic to find so many extraordinary companies as excited about these new experiments as we are.
Krista Freibaum at a PR agency responsible for the Tumblr efforts of AOL StyleList and Edun (part of LVHM), said that Tumblr was extremely helpful to brands from 2007 to 2010, but things changed around the time Tong was hired to manage the relationships Tumblr had with fashion brands. Freibaum recalls that time:
It was at this time when all the cool stuff brands had been working on with Tumblr was essentially lost. Relationships were forgotten. People were left in the dark. Literally, emails stopped being returned. Specifically, when we saw that brands and editorial outlets had been brought in to participate in the last NYFW we were shocked that nobody had even reached out to us or our clients.
In place of AOL StyleList, other brands were included instead, such as Elle.com, Glamour, and The Cut. Freibaum reached out to Tong about the snub to which she said he responded, “‘Thanks, but no thanks. You can do business the way you see fit, and we’ll do the same.’”
In addition to dealing with disgruntled brands, Tumblr has felt some backlash from how they’ve dealt with a browser extension created by developer Jeremey Cutler, called “missing-e” which layers in functions not available within the normal Tumblr experience. Some of these features includes ways to customize the visual display of the “Dashboard” which is the interface where Tumblr users post and “reblog” content from the people they’re following. Tumblr has obviously been paying attention to the “missing-e” since they’ve integrated some of the features offered by the extension since its release, such as carrying over tags from posts that were reblogged.
But Tumblr has not made any public statements regarding their apprehension about browser extensions such as the “missing-e”. Instead their displeasure with the extension has come through Cutler’s own dispatches of interactions with the company on his Tumblr.
In his last interaction with the company, despite removing any API requests with the service and simply providing an extension that interacts with Tumblr after pages are already rendered in the browser, they were unsatisfied. Cutler writes, “They informed me that they consulted their legal counsel, who feels comfortable interpreting the license agreement in the way that they have stated. I have requested information on those grounds, but do not believe much will come of it. I believe that Tumblr has no desire to clarify their position. That’s their prerogative, I’m sure.”
Cutler goes on to state that if he doesn’t comply with their requests, Tumblr would see it fit to stop allowing him to use their service altogether. “Whether or not I have grounds to justly disagree with them on this, the fact remains that under the Tumblr Terms of Service, they are well within their rights to delete my Tumblr blogs as a punitive action should I continue to distribute the extension. They have informed me that this is the course of action they will take should I not acquiesce to their demands.”
When I asked Karp about this and told him that I find “missing-e” to be a useful product that enhances my experience with Tumblr, he told me that people using the extension assume that the issues that creep up are not from the extension but are caused by Tumblr, adding unnecessary burden to their support staff. According to Karp, the “missing-e” is one of many extensions, and not even the most popular one, that Tumblr is forced to support.
I asked why the company has not been more forthcoming with their position, and Karp said that they’re focused on the wider base of users, and responding to an issue that is known to only a subset of their community would only cause confusion.
I told Karp I still think the company could be more transparent and forthcoming about the decisions they make and that he underestimates how that could change the perception some detractors may have. Karp conceded that he wasn’t entirely sure they’ve always taken the right approach when it comes to communication and that they’re working on ways to educate and inform users on a more regular basis:
I’m generally really proud of how we communicate as a company. It’s not particularly easy when there are so many subsets of the community with dramatically different interests and questions. But we respond to more than 11,000 emails each week, go into great technical detail on our Engineering blog, tweet within minutes of any service interruptions, spend lots of one-on-one time with our community (through our Outreach team), and feature our users’ amazing work across Radar, Spotlight, and Tumblr Tuesday. I also love that everyone on our team contributes to our Staff blog — a blog we’re not afraid to curse on — and that we’re quite disciplined in staying out of the fray when incendiary people lie about us.
Karp believes that the company is best served by focusing on execution:
Although we’ve had the occasional communication breakdown that we work hard not to repeat, I think we’ve done a good job of being honest, accessible, and thoughtful over the last 4 years. What I’m eager to improve, like most of what I’m focused on these days, is centered around scale and efficiency. How does our editorial team grow to curate and feature content in more languages? How do we scale our outreach team (currently four people) to cover all of the interests and communities on Tumblr? What’s the most efficient path to get the clearest status message from our ops team, to our support team, to Twitter –– at 4am? Etc.
Tumblr is entirely within their rights to choose who they do business with, whom they focus their attention on when it comes to partnerships, and how they deal with developers such as Cutler. I walked away from my conversation with Karp feeling like they want to operate similar to the way Apple does, protecting their vision for how their product looks and choosing who gets to appear “in their store”. Apple has managed to make that aspect part of what makes their products great; it remains to be seen if this approach will work for Tumblr as well.