Back in 2007 I was travelling to London on the train one day, listening to “This Week in Tech” – a podcast run by Leo Laporte from the back room of his house. He was talking to a developer friend called Gina Trapani about interesting things they had discovered on the web that week, and she mentioned a blogging startup that made it really easy for people to start posting stuff to the internet – to curate photos, text, quotes, and conversations in an online scrapbook of sorts. It had been developed by a small group of friends in New York, and was called Tumblr.
For the first couple of years Tumblr was pretty quiet. It didn’t have comments, and it didn’t work like other sites. WordPress was very much in the ascendancy, and various other sites burned brightly during those years, before vanishing entirely – I think perhaps Vox was the most significant. Little by little Tumblr built an army of users though – mostly by burning through incendiary quantities of venture capital to cover fashion, media, and popular culture.
It worked. Tumblr ended up with millions of users, hundreds of millions of posts (most of them recycled, but we’ll ignore that), and the kind of pirate/anarchist reputation money can’t buy – except somebody did but them. Yahoo.
I’m not entirely sure how you might describe what happened next – perhaps because it took a couple of years to happen, and is still happening – everybody began to leave. At first it was a slow trickle – you would login one day, and think “I haven’t seen a post from whats their name for a while” – and then discover they had quietly deactivated their account several months previously.
I think perhaps the tipping point – the end of the community I had known – came when Tumblr pulled comments for the best part of six months “while working on something awesome”. Everybody knew that they never intended to bring comments back, but I guess they saw the landslide going on in their numbers behind the scenes, and started back-pedalling as fast as they could. It was too late.
Tumblr is a pale shadow of the place it once was. There was a time when if you didn’t check the feed of posts from those you follow for a few hours, you would have no chance of catching up. Tumblr wasn’t so much a stream of blog posts – more a raging torrent. These days it has become the tiny colvert at the bottom of a deserted canyon.
While sitting on the train this morning I began wondering if those of us that remain at Tumblr could do anything about it – to lift the remains of the community by their bootstraps and make it the place it had once been again – to encourage old members to return, and to entice new bloggers to sign up. I think we all know it’s a lost cause though. The world has moved on.
We can’t really complain – Tumblr has been around for 9 years now. That’s a LONG time for the internet. I would like to say I won’t leave – that I’ll fasten my posts to the sticking place (rubbish Shakespeare quote) – but we only have to look across the way to LiveJournal to see how once mighty titans eventually fall into shadow.
There’s got to be some way of working in Dylan Thomas’s “rage against the dying of the light” into this somehow, but I don’t have enough brain power left tonight – especially after half a bottle of cheap supermarket wine. Maybe we should though. Maybe we should make sure that as Tumblr burns down to it’s embers, we will blow on them, and remind people how mighty it once was.