So what is Tumblr? It’s a microblogging site that lands somewhere between being a social media site, such as Facebook or Twitter, and a blog and users post photos and short text, rather than longer blog style posts. Now according to the Wall Street Journal, it’s on the market, with its owner, Vernon Media reportedly looking for a buyer.

The background

Tumblr’s been around since 2007 and was bought by Yahoo in 2013 for $1.1bn. Yahoo joined Oath and Oath became Verizon Media. Invented by David Karp and Marco Arment, when Karp was just 21, it was designed for users aged 13 upwards. It boasts 420 million users and more than 200 million blogs, of which 42% are in the US. The Tumblr community is mostly teen, according to Tumblr, with 61% 13-19 considering it their favorite social network.

At its height of popularity, it had a lot of positive write-ups and was primarily seen as a progressive community. Inc wrote: “If you’re not using Tumblr as part of your marketing efforts, you’re missing a very large boat,” and Forbes said that “Tumblr harnesses the enthusiasm around a particular topic and coalesces into a community.”

Many of the memes you see on other social sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram started out life on Tumblr. It became a place where users could share stories about their difficulties with their sexuality, body image, and identity. It was a place where users could feel safe in expressing themselves, and the site welcomed LGBTQ and sex-positive bloggers. And when the Russian government took over fellow blogging site LiveJournal, and it censored LGBTQ content, Tumblr only benefited right? Only for a short time.

It’s known for its eccentric and sometimes bizarre blogging community, allowing users who have a subject matter in common to share posts and content with like-minded people. The results are funny, weird, and just different, often adult in content (more about that later). It’s been hugely successful, and in 2011 became the first blogging site to host the blog for President Barack Obama. By 2013, it had grown by 74%, compared to Twitter at 40% in the same period.

So why’s Vernon Media reportedly looking to offload Tumblr?

So what went wrong? On December 17, 2018, all adult content, defined by Tumblr on their site as: “photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content — including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations — that depicts sex acts.” 

Indeed Tumblr’s statement on its site reassured users that: “We recognize Tumblr is also a place to speak freely about topics like art, sex, positivity, your relationships, your sexuality, and your personal journey. We want to make sure that we continue to foster this type of diversity of expression in the community, so our new policy strives to strike a balance.” But, there have been examples of women breastfeeding, and other content related to health that has allegedly infringed these regulations.

Users were angry, seeing it as an infringement that would alienate them. So, they started to desert the platform, choosing Twitter, Patreon, and Pillowfort instead. Tumblr’s previously tolerant and relaxed policies effectively ended almost overnight. Users who left include artists, writers, and creatives who used the site for their fiction, poetry, art, and graphics.

Commentators were universal in writing that this would affect literally millions of users and their content, given that Tumblr’s appeal was largely due to its edgier and more tolerant nature. Users began to cross over to Twitter instead. Vernon maintains its position, defending that it wants to provide “a safe place for communities to thrive.”

Tumblr’s problems don’t just lie in porn related adult content. It’s also been criticized for hosting pro-anorexia sites and worryingly pro-Nazi content. As early as 2012, Tumblr announced a new policy against “self-harm” blogs, stating it would moderate blogs that promote anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders as well as suicide and self-mutilation. A quick Google search is all it takes to find disturbing and upsetting examples of what we’re talking about.

And then there’s the Nazi content. A month after the adult content ban, there were reports that white supremacist blogs were still all too easy to find. Sites promoting the far right and far-right terrorism still exist, yet critics argue that instead of worrying about naked bodies, Tumblr should be wany more concerned about Nazis instead.

What about the money?

Vernon is essentially a telecommunications company, not a media company. So it’s strayed into different territory, spending $9 billion acquiring Yahoo and AOL, as well as the media outlets the two had bought such as the Huffington Post, Mapquest and, of course, Tumblr.

Although these businesses aren’t a large part of Vernon, they aren’t necessarily a natural fit since they’re not part of their core business. In December 2018, Vernon reduced the value of its media holdings by $4.5bn, just six months after they closed down their own mobile video content platform,

What now?

Vernon Media acquired a vast media platform and then didn’t manage it successfully, despite its hopes of generating revenues from advertising. However, its colossal ban on NSFW and refusal to simply moderate it and remove anything illegal, has meant it’s not capitalized on a unique product.

There are still millions of NSFW blogs on the site, but only their creator can see them, so the ban could, in theory, be lifted either by Vernon or by a new independent owner.

Also, before the content was banned, blog creators were allowed to download their content, so again in theory, it could all go back up again. It could also be argued that if that were to happen, then Vernon may get a lot more in the sale. If Vernon simply invested in some more human moderators rather than algorithms that obviously don’t work, users might return. Vernon’s aspirations to create a safe community are admirable, but they clearly come at a price that perhaps not all potential buyers think is worth paying.