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Editorial notebook / Claire McNeill

Editorial notebook: Yahoo tumbles into the hip

It's a sign of the economic times. While unemployment remains stubbornly high, a 26-year-old high school dropout is now worth $275 million thanks to a stodgy media giant keen to feel cool.

This week, David Karp sold Tumblr, the blogging site he created six years ago, to Yahoo for $1.1 billion. Tumblr has grown exponentially in recent years and will bring the page views and young users Yahoo craves. What is unclear is how Yahoo will turn the largely ad-free site into a moneymaker without alienating the creative community it hosts.

Tumblr is a short-form, blogging-meets-social media platform in which users follow others and like, share or react to content they post. It's an engaged network ranging from art and literature to travel and comedy, or, for many, memes and cat photos.

Facebook still reigns supreme by virtue of its massive user base, but it doesn't captivate the same way it once did. People are increasingly letting their Facebook accounts grow stale while seeking meaningful engagement elsewhere. Tumblr has been a haven for creators of all sorts who want to find the content they love while connecting with others.

CEO Marissa Mayer called Tumblr "just the kind of property that Yahoo needed to make it both 'cool' and relevant to new consumers." That reflects how old-fashioned Yahoo is grasping at straws in a bid to become hip with a younger demographic.

But Yahoo remains optimistic, despite some users' panic and vows to abandon Tumblr if Yahoo makes unwelcome changes.

Yahoo's track record hasn't been all that encouraging. In Yahoo's hands, (the already-suffering) Geo-cities crumbled. The promising photo site Flickr has been all but left to the dogs. The success of this acquisition depends on Yahoo's next steps.

I've been a Tumblr user for three years, and I love the circle I've carved out for myself there. Clunky ads and a barrage of sponsored posts would feel like an invasion of the space I've created. More ads would make the entire community feel different — and it's not even clear if Tumblr can really generate revenue yet. Thanks to Karp's general aversion to advertising, Tumblr has made practically nothing since its inception — and a poor attempt at making money could sink the whole ship.

Furthermore, we know young folks are notoriously fickle, as evidenced by the Internet graveyard that is now Myspace. If Yahoo gets heavy-handed, expect retaliation in the form of deleted accounts. After all, WordPress offers a feature in which users can import all Tumblr content to a blog there. Let's avoid that fate.

I'm still optimistic. Mayer has pledged to keep Yahoo separate from Tumblr, aiding its growth via Yahoo infrastructure but, essentially, letting it be (a la Google's acquisition of YouTube).

Maybe, then, Yahoo can help ensure Tumblr's relative longevity while still maintaining its core missions — to create and to share — and staying true to the culture it has fostered. (And, one can only hope, installing a usable search function.)

Claire McNeill, a Times intern, is the 2013 Pittman Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She can be reached at

Editorial notebook: Yahoo tumbles into the hip 05/24/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 24, 2013 1:13pm]
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