On Monday, Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp announced he was leaving the company. The decision, Karp wrote in a note to employees, came “after months of reflection on my own personal ambitions, and at no cost to my hopefulness for Tumblr’s future or the impact I know it can have.” He also posted a copy of the message on his own popular Tumblr, David's Log, where he’s posted regularly since starting the company at age 20.
In many ways, Karp had a similar background to other highly successful startup founders. He founded Tumblr in 2007, when he wasn’t old enough to legally drink, and sold the company to Yahoo in 2013 for $1.1 billion. He wore hoodies. He was described as both “spartan” and “precocious”, and was glowingly compared to Steve Jobs. At the same time, he was also perceived as being cooler and slightly different than those startup founders (or at least cooler than Mark Zuckerberg). He lived in Williamsburg, and seemed to crave attention, two traits that put him at the center of gossipy media coverage during Tumblr’s heyday. (He was called a “hipster,”, and then rejected the label of “hipster,” which is what one did in 2013 after being called a hipster.) He shared a lot on his Tumblr — he once wondered publicly if he was allowed to say that word when listening to a rap song, which apart from being a dumb question for a white guy to ask, is especially dumb when you’re the visible founder of a multimillion-dollar company. He said he didn’t care about money even though he was a millionaire, and openly blanched at the idea of professionalizing the platform he built after selling it for a billion dollars.
Most uniquely, Tumblr’s most rabid fans have always referred to Karp as “daddy.” There is a very simple explanation for this, which is that Karp founded the website and is therefore its creator. All creators are fathers, in a way, and some fathers are even daddies — if that’s what you’re into, of course. There was definitely a sexual element to it — where daddy’s concerned, there always is — but Tumblr’s daddy phenomenon also occasionally verged on religious veneration. Unlike Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, whose primary interactions with users at this point amount to ignoring their calls to ban neo-Nazis from the website, and Zuckerberg, who had to go on a tour of the country to remind people he’s a human being who is definitely not running for president, Karp was beloved among his website’s users. So beloved that erotic David Karp fanfiction exists, including a story called “The Daddy Pact” about Karp’s (fictional, as far as I know) sexual relationship with fellow social network founder Mark Zuckerberg, which includes the phrase “erect dong.” Karp, a notoriously public figure who founded a website known for its fandoms, experienced what happens when people latch onto the cult of personality you’ve created, and take it to its logical extreme.
The Karp-as-daddy — and more broadly, Karp-as-icon — phenomenon was equal parts earnest and ironic. “Rule #1 of Tumblr,” according to a post with nearly 650,000 notes, is that if a picture of Karp “comes up on your dash, you must reblog.” A picture of Karp’s besocked left foot wedged into a flip flop garnered more than 5,000 notes. A 2016 post about memes remembered only by “tru tumblr users” recalls that in the pre-Yahoo acquisition days, Tumblr users called Karp daddy “unironically.” (To be clear, I used Tumblr during my teen years but I never called Karp "daddy.")
In a 2012 interview, Karp admitted he didn’t like the “daddy” moniker — not because the cult of personality surrounding him made him uncomfortable, because it was “like, too much.” Instead, he said, “I prefer The Creator. That one, I think, has a ring to it.” Like all heavenly creators, it seemed as if Karp wanted to be everything to everyone — and even came close. To former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, he was a golden goose. To former president Barack Obama, Karp was a conduit through which he could reach The Youth. To those who love a good startup success story, Karp was a wunderkind. To critics of Silicon Valley, Karp was a man-child with a warped perception of reality who represented everything that was wrong with startup culture. But to Tumblr’s fans, Karp was daddy.
remember when ppl genuinely insisted that u call david karp "daddy"— callie starling🌈💘 (@spaceysquid) August 7, 2017
The fawning appreciation of Karp seemed to dip right after Yahoo purchased Tumblr in 2013. After the sale was announced, more than 170,000 users signed a petition urging Karp to resist the buyout, claiming Yahoo would force Tumblr to change. After the acquisition, blogs compiling people’s “feels about Yahoo buying Tumblr” began popping up. Then-Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer tried to assuage these concerns by telling reporters Yahoo had a plan to address content that wasn’t “brand safe” — i.e., the 11 percent of Tumblr blogs that were dedicated to porn — but would stop short of deleting explicit content from the website. Some users posted fake announcements that Tumblr would not only target porn, but would also begin wiping out the website’s fandom blogs, which clearly never happened.
After the sale, some Tumblr users lamented their “daddy’s” betrayal. (ABC, on the “daddy” phenomenon: "Just please, please stop referring to Karp as ‘Daddy.’ He’s so clearly more of a ‘Big Papi.’”) Karp remained the public face of Tumblr, and doubled down on attempts to make the website simultaneously cool and appealing to advertisers. “We’ve taken a pretty hard line of freedom of speech, supporting our users’ creation, whatever that looks like, and that’s just not something we want to police,” Karp said on an episode of The Colbert Report that aired a month after Mayer’s call with reporters. Instead of removing porn altogether, Tumblr began flagging certain blogs as “NSFW” or “Adult” and removing those blogs from external and internal search results, leading to significant backlash against both Karp and Tumblr in general.
As Tumblr lost its buzz to more monetizable platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, Karp similarly lost the spotlight. Once a visible advocate who topped the covers of magazines, he was less frequently profiled as a vanguard of new media. The updates on his own personal Tumblr slowed down. Eventually, even Yahoo admitted the Tumblr deal hadn’t been a great one.
It's unclear what the future holds for Tumblr, which has failed to meet revenue targets in recent years. As The Verge noted, Tumblr’s sale to Yahoo kicked off a “dizzying string of mergers and acquisitions.” Yahoo bought Tumblr in 2013, Verizon bought Yahoo earlier this year, Yahoo and AOL merged into a Verizon-owned behemoth called Oath, which now owns Tumblr — a convoluted chain of events that marginalized the platform over time, and could have played a part in Karp’s decision to leave the company. But no matter what happens, nobody else on the website will ever be daddy.