When Yahoo acquired Tumblr in May 2013 for $1.1 billion, there were concerns that the company would run Tumblr into the ground in the way that Yahoo did with other acquisitions like Flickr and Delicious. It didn’t, but its successor sure might.
Verizon’s $4.5 billion purchase of Yahoo closed last week. Yahoo will be merged with AOL, another Verizon acquisition, to form Oath, a Frankenstein-like umbrella for AOL and Yahoo’s media and advertising offerings. What does this mean for Tumblr, a formerly beloved site with 35.6 million daily posts? So far, signs point to nothing good.
Tumblr under Yahoo was, while not perfect, in a state of limbo. Yahoo knew the site was home to close-knit, highly active communities and didn’t want to “screw it up,” in Marissa Mayer’s words, but it also didn’t know how to make it better or effectively profit off of it. Marketer Andréa López summed things up well in a relatively popular Tumblr post where she referred to Yahoo’s handling of Tumblr up now as a sort of “protective purgatory.”
In four years under Yahoo, these were some of the changes Tumblr made:
- a brief dalliance with including Yahoo web results in Tumblr search
- more sponsored ads and videos
- ditching the classic reblog formatting
- push notifications for new posts from blogs you follow
- improved post tools
The fear of serious change loomed large for a time, but never really materialized. The combination of Yahoo and Tumblr’s ad sales team in 2015 didn’t pan out, but that’s about the extent of it. Yahoo basically gave up on Tumblr, writing down around half the price it paid.
Early signs suggest Verizon will take a more active approach. Layoffs began hitting last week in the wake of the approved acquisition. Around 2,100 people were reportedly laid off across AOL and Yahoo properties including many at HuffPost, all of Yahoo Esports, and some folks at Tumblr.
And while it certainly might come across as a bit doom and gloom to be saying that Verizon will kill Tumblr, there’s already a trend toward significantly changing the culture of the company. The Verge reports that there’s been a downplaying of net neutrality at Tumblr, something the company once supported openly such as during the virtual protest Battle for the Net in 2014. Verizon, as one of the internet service providers that will benefit from a rollback of Obama-era net neutrality rules, is thrilled with the FCC’s current plans.
Tumblr under Yahoo was, while not perfect, in a state of limbo
There’s also the introduction of a new “Safe Mode.” Tumblr has always had a porn problem; adult content makes up a ton of the site’s traffic, but turns away advertisers. An estimate from analytics service SimilarWeb says around 20.53 percent of Tumblr’s desktop site’s total traffic is for adult content.
Less than a week after it became official that Verizon was buying Yahoo, Tumblr announced that it would begin filtering “sensitive content” on the site more aggressively and requiring users to sign in if they want to view blogs designated “explicit.” Tumblr’s Help Center describes this “sensitive content” as “anything that might not be suitable for some members of the Tumblr community” such as “nudity, including in an artistic, educational, or photojournalistic context.” It’s unclear if Safe Mode is related to the acquisition, but it may have been a condition of the deal.
If Verizon’s AOL acquisition is any indication, the company is likely to move much more rapidly and aggressively than Yahoo did after it bought Tumblr. In just two years, there were waves of layoffs and a “realignment” that gutted things like dial-up service (a good thing) and AIM (sad). A further 500 jobs were cut from AOL late last year as part of a “streamlining” effort.
“Any acquisition is full of question marks,” Lopez wrote. “But Tumblr’s place in Verizon’s future is especially mysterious coz there’s been few indicators of what Verizon thinks Tumblr is.” Given Verizon’s track record, it’s likely to see Tumblr as a collection of unique pageviews and little more.