Tumblr was sold this month, reportedly for a bargain-basement price, to Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.
This was exciting news to Tumblr users, whose platform could be called the last bastion of a friendly social internet. As the big networks have become dangerously bigger, nostalgia for the kinder, stranger online communities of yesteryear — like the video app Vine, or Myspace in its heyday — has increased. Tumblr too became a smaller, less exciting place after it was purchased by Yahoo in 2013.
No one at Yahoo seemed to know quite what to do with Tumblr — particularly its large community of adult content creators. Verizon bought Yahoo in 2017 and, the following year, banned pornographic content on Tumblr Many thought the company had thrown out the baby with the bath water; the site lost nearly a third of its users.
Automattic’s chief executive, Matt Mullenweg, is an enthusiastic proponent of Tumblr and of the open web more broadly. We asked him questions.
Can you tell me a little bit just about what your vision is for the site? How do you see Tumblr fitting into the landscape as it currently exists, and what are the opportunities for the site?
I do believe that the bulk of that knowledge about what’s best for Tumblr next actually comes from the current team. So it’s not that I have any special knowledge or anything. I’m a Tumblr fan as well, and I know publishing. I know WordPress. These are the things I would consider myself an expert in, not Tumblr. But the lessons from one side of it, I think, many of them are applicable to the other side, especially when you look at WordPress’s history of really giving users control, allowing creativity and expression. I’m looking forward to bringing some of that freedom and creativity to the Tumblr community as well.
You’ve said to judge you by the next 18 months or so. What should we be looking for?
We still have to close and get all the servers moved over and everything. So I’d say give us a few months to get all that. Beyond that, I would say absolutely look for new functionality on the site.
I don’t want to dive deep into the road map, but some things are just a little obvious. Just to give one example that I know has been pressing on people’s minds, when someone tries to visit your site they won’t get a huge block of legal language. I think it’ll increase people’s traffic quite a bit actually.
The social internet has gone through a lot of changes. I wonder if you could talk about how Tumblr fits into that a little bit.
It doesn’t matter if there’s no one else in your town, or wherever you live, who’s into the same things you are. You can find your tribe online. And at its best, Tumblr is a very tribal product. You’re able to connect with all facets of your identity and, in fact, express different parts of yourself very easily through different accounts. That’s something that I do believe Tumblr encompasses and in fact it created a lot of what’s best about the social web.
There’s some people who subscribe to tribes whose worldviews are not quite as rosy. How do you go about that process of making sure that people are able to bond over similar interests but that they’re not getting together and inciting violence or radicalizing each other?
I think first you have to have very clear policies. Now if anyone cares about Automattic’s policies or WordPress.com’s, they’re on the website. And we try to spell them out, not just in legalese but really in clear human language.
And second, I think that you need to approach those policies — how they translate into reality — with some common sense. With a human touch. You’re not ever going to be perfect. I will never say that Automattic or anyone will get 100 percent. But I do believe that you can take a humane and iterative stance which strikes a really good balance between nurturing the type of conversation and communities and user experience that you want people to have while still allowing for a wide variety of expression. And I am overall incredibly proud of what WordPress has done there really over the past 16 years of our existence.
I wonder if you can give me any insight into why the governance of WordPress often seems to have been more thorough.
Over the long arc, what we’ve tried to do is build up trust with the world at large and our community, to handle things in a reasonable way. Which includes making mistakes sometimes. But correcting them as you would hope a human would or a friend would.
I wonder if you have any examples of that kind of thing where you really had to shift your mind-set.
Yeah we actually were called out in The New York Times quite well. It was an episode I’m incredibly ashamed of. We had a large number of Sandy Hook deniers that were using the platform to spread misinformation that what causing a lot of harm to families. And so that’s something we’ve worked on a lot. I would say now we’re at a much, much better place.
Was it a policy change that allowed you to clean that up?
Merely discussing a conspiracy I don’t think was directly in our policy. So we both evolved from the policies to encompass this particular behavior. But I also think you could never enumerate everything bad everyone could ever do.
Who would you like to get using Tumblr who’s not already using it?
I want to get the most creative people in the world, who have something to say and share, on Tumblr. Just full stop. And it’s so easy to use. The mobile app is so good. The community is so strong. It’s an incredible platform for artists, for writers, for musicians. It’s true that Tumblr, even in its state where it’s smaller than it has been in the past, still defines the culture in so many ways. The things that start there spread out to the news, to the radio, to BuzzFeed. It really is a source of a lot of this. So for people who want to be close to the source, it’s the place to be.
I think people were really excited to see you addressing the possible return of RSS feeds. Is that a definitive part of your plan?
I am since my earliest years, since my teenage years, a strong proponent of the open web. So you can expect that to continue in everything that I do or have influence on in my career.
There are some technical issues there, particularly as we migrate data centers A lot of the stuff will be after that migration. But count that as high on my list.
As far as I could understand what you said to The Verge, when it came to porn on Tumblr, you talked about how difficult it is with the app stores. And then you also talked about more finely defining what can be allowed on there. Am I understanding the second part of that correctly?
Hmm. So WordPress.com has very clear policies around this. They have not had some of the pushback that Tumblr has.
There’s also a question of implementation. Art is allowed under Tumblr’s current policies. But there are some stories of people sharing things that are very much defined as art and running into the filters. So I think there’s really two parts there. There’s one, unifying these policies. And then two, making sure that there’s no bugs in the implementation. Because I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to be posting something — particularly if you’ve been using Tumblr for many many years — and get a false flag.
I know, you’ve talked about this a little bit. But I wonder about just kind of a broad timeline. When did you become aware that this deal was a possibility? When did that discussion start? And when did it become a real serious possibility?
It’s been at least a few months in the making. It was a ton of work on both sides. Did you see my blog post about the price? I really do mean that. I have a ton of respect for how Verizon approached us and I’m very much looking forward to really the entire Tumblr team coming over. The way that Automattic approaches acquisitions is much like a Berkshire Hathaway. We want the management, we want the team. We want to take things that aren’t working and help them grow and be better versus more of a chop and sell.
If you were to describe Tumblr, to someone who wasn’t familiar with it, and didn’t know that you are now in charge of it, but you were just trying to give them a sense of what it is, and how it’s different from other sites — how would you go about doing that?
I guess a good way to summarize — and this is just off the top so I apologize — is that Tumblr is the best place to share what you’re passionate about and connect with others who are passionate about the same thing, no matter how weird, or niche, or random it might be.
This interview has been edited and condensed.