Is Automattic Going To Save Tumblr’s Life?

Earlier this year, when it was announced that WordPress creator Automattic was to buy Tumblr, some optimism returned to the realm of creative blogging. Despite there being more free options for bloggers than ever before, most of them are woeful, and at the top of the tree, the spirit of blogging has been dying a painful death.

WordPress.com has shifted its commercial focus towards business websites, populating the platform with disengaged husks and decimating what was once a passionate writers’ community. Tumblr has suffered all kinds of problems in the hands of Verizon, and seen a catastrophic drop in usage as a result. Medium.com, proclaimed by some as the new king of serious blogging platforms, has been blighted with an elitist mentality, where a heavy curation bias sees ‘preferred authors’, with ‘preferred styles’, seizing the bulk of the visibility. And Blogger (.blogspot) has no real native community features at all. If you can code HTML and CSS, and you have a separate social media presence that can drive traffic, Blogger is unbeatable. But most people can’t, and don’t.

In fact, so great is the lack of a decent, unbiased blogging platform these days, that unthinkably, much of the most vibrant blogging is now published on Twitter. I know! Twitter! Many people with something to say (as opposed to something to sell) would rather write a clumsy 800-word thread directly onto Twitter than bother posting on a dedicated blogging platform. Trying to wedge what’s essentially a blog article into a series of tweets would have seemed certifiably crackpot back at the start of the decade, but today it makes some bizarre kind of sense. That’s a measure of the decline in appeal among blogging platforms. They’re broadly just software now. Not communities.

If any blogging platform can claim itself an exception to the above, it’s Tumblr. Yes, Verizon/Oath have devastated confidence in the brand and driven away a huge volume of users. But the environment still buzzes with human issues, off-the-wall content and radical ideas, and the bloggers who succeed are generally the ones with talent. Not the ones who went to the same uni as the site owners, or the ones who spent the longest on Stack Overflow, or the ones with the best Trustpilot scores. Tumblr’s immediately prior owner may have been almost universally derided, but the platform still has an enthusiastic community. With the right business plan, that can be worth a lot.

So does Automattic have the right business plan? Well, given the very low price they paid for Tumblr, I’m not sure they even needed a business plan in order to justify handing over the cash. However, we saw in August 2019’s round of Matt Mullenweg interviews that the Automattic boss did quickly form some ideas about the direction in which Tumblr would go. It wasn’t a headline, but his almost throwaway use of the word “memberships” could have been the most telling element of the interviews.

“Memberships” is a subscription-based revenue model, and interestingly enough, a model I suggested in my 2018 article on how Tumblr could survive financially. With memberships, some publishers choose to paywall their content, and consumers pay for access to it – typically, at present, per month, on a subscription basis. It means publishers are rewarded for their work, on merit (because you only subscribe while they’re delivering value), and the platform also makes money because it takes a cut of each subscription.

If the subscription model does become a serious part of Tumblr’s revenue stream, the platform could attract bigger and better creators. But the main difficulty in introducing the idea would be re-engaging the audience most likely to subscribe.

Part of Verizon’s plan for Tumblr, especially after it outlawed NSFW content, was to market specifically to kids, then sit around wondering why no one was spending any money. Clearly, kids are not going to buy subscriptions, or buy upgrades, or click ads, so Automattic would need to re-establish Tumblr as a platform for adults. By that I don’t mean reopen the porn floodgate. I mean give adult communities the scope and freedom to behave like grown-ups, and don’t treat them like kids, as Verizon very obviously did.

The Mullenweg interviews seemed to indicate that Automattic understand the need to treat adults like adults. I think there’s at least an intention to reverse some of the extreme “nannying” decisions Verizon made. But @Tumblr’s Twitter account gives a good indication of how the platform wants to be seen by the outside world. And whilst the feed is not currently as young-minded as it became in early 2019, it doesn’t indicate the kind of maturity which I believe would be required to attract many qualified subscribers. Who, realistically, is going to subscribe for trivial jokes, one-off comments and nice but basically meaningless drawings? There’s going to have to be more substance on offer, surely.

I also hope that when Matt Mullenweg mentioned memberships, he didn’t mean Medium.com-style universal subscriptions – where a member pays one fee and can access all paid content on the platform. That system does not encourage quality among publishers – only baiting for clicks.

COULD TUMBLR GET WORSE?

There’s certainly a danger that some of Tumblr’s currently free publishing features could be monetised by Automattic. Automattic monetises design theme editing on WordPress, and it could very easily fence off Tumblr’s powerful design editor (which at present is free) as a paid upgrade. There was evidence in the Mullenweg interviews that Automattic do want to boost Tumblr’s accessibility from the search engines. Verizon had been shifting towards a closed platform model, which, if taken to its extreme, would have made open web blog design themes irrelevant. But Mullenweg has expressed a longstanding preference for the open access model.

That could be interpreted in a multitude of ways. His main consideration may be pulling in more engaged traffic – which search engines do brilliantly. But equally, he could be focused on heightening Tumblr publishers’ interest in their open web blogs, and consequently their design themes. If he achieves the latter, as he has with WordPress.com, it’s almost impossible to imagine that he won’t fence off design editing as a paid upgrade.

But if that does happen, Automattic are almost certain to add free WordPress.com features to Tumblr, which it doesn’t currently have. Native page visit stats, for example. At the moment, anyone on Tumblr who wants to monitor their page visit volumes needs to use a third party resource. With WordPress.com it’s built in. WordPress.com also has much better search engine optimisation than Tumblr, and that could be added for free too, because it benefits the platform financially.

Another consideration for Tumblr users is how Automattic intend to proceed with advertising. Before the Yahoo/Verizon/Oath era, Tumblr served no ads on its open web blogs. Yahoo then introduced ads to blogs. By default, the ads displayed, but they could be switched off without the need for any upgrade fee. On WordPress.com. however, ads are mandatory on blogs unless the publisher pays for an upgrade. Given Mullenweg’s apparent interest in the open web side of Tumblr, he may well be planning to carry that policy across from WordPress too.

We’ve seen with Smugmug’s acquistition of Flickr, as well as with other tech buy-outs, that business strategies die hard. And with WordPress.com in a far healthier commercial state than Tumblr, few would bet against Automattic implementing at least some of WordPress.com’s revenue strategy on their new acquisition.

I think that would be a bad move, but I fear it’s what they’ll do. Why a bad move? Well…

WILL PUBLISHERS FOOT THE BILL ON TUMBLR?

If WordPress.com has a barrier to creativity (and it does in my view), it’s the issue of who foots the bill. I know web hosting and platform maintenance costs money, but I’ve never agreed that such funds should come from the builders of the internet. Only relatively recently have platforms begun to explore the idea of re-orientating the collecting tin, so the money comes from the people who benefit from the content, rather than the people who provide it.

I think that even now, among the new wave of publishing platforms, there’s generally a gross misunderstanding of just what’s possible with monetising content. Most of the systems are still very ‘all or nothing’. Either a member subscribes and gets everything one publisher publishes, or they don’t, and they get zilch. The problem for publishers is that once they disappear behind this “membership” paywall, no one outside it can see them, so the publishers can’t effectively build new interest. And only a small minority of publishers can commit to providing a reliable quantity of content per month. That’s a much bigger problem than I think the platforms realise.

I’d like to see much more sophisticated models in which all content providers default to free publishing, and can then paywall selected items, or parts of those items, as and when they please. If they want to paywall everything, fine, but let them control it. Let them decide precisely how much of a piece of content they provide for free, and where the paywall kicks in, if it kicks in at all. Let them monetise their expertise too, with selectively paywalled messaging.

What I hope does NOT happen on Tumblr, is that it turns into WordPress.com Junior. A revival of WP as it was before the business drone influx, but with a younger mental age. That’s not at all where Tumblr should be heading. It has a chance to lead the creative market if it innovates in a way that motivates creative publishers to not only use it, but give it their best work. It will not do that by trying to hand them the bill, a la WordPress.com. All creatives have a priority list when it comes to distributing their work. They’re going to give their best stuff to the platforms that offer them the best deal.

The concept of big UGC sites rewarding creatives is currently in its infancy, but as we head into the ‘twenties, there are going to be more and more platforms adopting a commission-based model. Why? Because the viability of advertising is dying a slow death, and even in very crude form, the commission model is working. So if platforms like Tumblr don’t shift to a system that tangibly rewards creatives, they’ll eventually hit the bottom of the creatives’ priority list, and be left hosting only the afterthoughts, links and DMCA-bait. There’s not going to be any money in that.

It will only take one platform to really get the monetisation of content distribution right, and virtually every good content creator on the internet will want a home there. Tumblr could be that platform, because Automattic is undeniably equipped to deliver. But it needs to give creatives all the tools they need to create, design, attract the widest possible audiences, and monitor their progress, for free. It needs to listen to them, and help them generate revenue, with the best user experience from every angle. It can then enjoy collecting all the commission on its creatives’ earnings. The better the tools, and the more control creatives have, the more money they’ll make for Automattic.

PREDICTIONS?

Automattic has to try something different with Tumblr. My prediction, if the company tries to monetise with upgrades and ads, is that it’ll end up drifting into the same market as WP.com. Business drones making websites and/or delusionals paying £50-100 a year to pump out useless content to follow-spammers. That’s not necessarily commercial failure, but it is duplication, which would make the purchase of Tumblr pretty pointless in the long term.

My prediction, if Automattic thinks out and implements a sophisticated commission-based revenue model, is that it could be one of the great success stories of the next decade. What none of the blogging platforms seem to grasp, is just how desperate publishers are for one technically-sound, all-purpose platform that truly deserves their best work, does not regard them as “the customer”, and helps them to achieve – rather than throwing obstacles in their way and asking for money to remove said obstacles. Tumblr is already technically better than Blogger and Medium, and it’s frightening what the site could achieve if it could attract the best publishers. There’s only one way it’s going to do that, and… Hint: it doesn’t involve greeting them with yet another collecting tin.