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14 Sep

Automattic Acquires Tumblr

Everyone’s favorite blogging platform, Tumblr, is yet again, getting a new owner.

Verizon Media had announced the sale of Tumblr to Automattic in August 2019.

Tumblr was sold to Yahoo for $1.1 billion in 2013, then withered as Yahoo sold itself to AOL, AOL got sold to Verizon, and Verizon realized it was a phone company after all.

Sources quoted by Axios, put the sale value below $10 million, some even speculating it to be as low as $3 mn. Verizon seems to be selling it for a song and had been looking for buyers from earlier this year. Pornhub was the only site which had shown interest in buying Tumblr.

But to Verizon’s credit, it chose to sell Tumblr to Automattic, the company behind WordPress, the publishing platform that runs about one third of the websites on the internet.

Considering Tumblr’s stand against pornography, selling to Pornhub may not have been the best option. A blanket ban on all kinds of adult content was also seen by many from the community to be a bit harsh and resulted in many people leaving the platform. Automattic will carry on with the porn ban on Tumblr after the acquisition.

WordPress’s creator and Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg told the Wall Street Journal that while his company intended to keep Tumblr’s adult content ban in place, Automattic had no intention of running roughshod over Tumblr’s existing atmosphere. “It’s just fun. We’re not going to change any of that.” he told the WSJ.

Tumblr hosts about 475 million blogs and has over 200 employees, who will now be part of Automattic. According to Mullenweg, Tumblr will act as a complementary site to WordPress. Matt thinks the future of Tumblr is bright. He wants the platform to bring back the best of old-school blogging, reinvented for mobile and connected to Tumblr’s still-vibrant community, and he’s retaining all the Tumblr employees to build that future. This is the most exciting foresight for Tumblr.

Matt outlined a brief roadmap for Tumblr’s future that includes re-architecting its backend with WordPress:

  1. Move infrastructure off Verizon
  2. Support same APIs on both and Tumblr
  3. Switch backend to be WP
  4. Open source client similar to Calypso

Beyond this initial roadmap Mullenweg outlined, he also said he thinks “e-commerce on Tumblr is a great idea,” with simpler features developed first. In the past, Tumblr users who wanted to add e-commerce to their sites would need to use a service like Shopify or Ecwid and generate a Tumblr-compatible widget. Users would have to move to a self-hosted site on another platform in order to get more full-featured e-commerce capabilities. Automattic has the ability to build e-commerce into the platform using WooCommerce or any number of other existing solutions for simpler sales features. Migrating the infrastructure of Tumblr to WordPress also expands WordPress’ market share with a considerable amount of younger user base. A study conducted by We Are Flint in 2018 found 43 percent of internet users between the ages of 18 to 24 years old used Tumblr.

In 2014, a year after Tumblr’s $1.1 billion sale, WordPress’s parent company Automattic got a valuation of $1.2 billion, and while it’s resisted acquisition, the tech world has long been full of speculation that the company is close to either being bought or going public.

Where WordPress excels over Tumblr, however, is in respecting and following its community’s lead on things like site design. One of the foundations of its success is its commitment to open source web design, meaning anyone can make and customize their own WordPress website theme. We might say Tumblr is something of an open source community too, with the ecosystem flourishing and growing most when it’s able to be artistically inventive and essentially bend Tumblr’s format in new and interesting directions. (For instance, the site was initially intended to be a “microblog,” closer in spirit to Twitter’s original 180-character limit; instead, Tumblr users made the platform well-known for long, image-heavy posts, subcultural artistic movements, and animated GIF storytelling.) Tumblr’s corporate overlords have had significant trouble with this notion in the past, but supporting a more hands-off community is not something that should give Automattic much trouble.

The acquisition makes Automattic an even more relevant player in the generation of web content, particularly in the field of personal publishing. Over the years, Tumblr has experienced many phases of low growth and some loss of relevance due to the lack of an effective strategy and poor management, but has maintained a reasonable level of use and has a fairly loyal community. With the right management it could go far, particularly in an era when people are growing tired of social networks that see users as simple raw material to be monetized.

Mullenweg issued a statement about the acquisition in a Tumblr post above. “When the possibility to join forces became concrete, it felt like a once-in-a-generation opportunity to have two beloved platforms work alongside each other to build a better, more open, more inclusive—and, frankly, more fun Web. I knew we had to do it,” he wrote.

As for Tumblr’s underlying technology, Mullenweg wrote that “there are some good opportunities to standardize on the Open Source WordPress tech stack, but the front-end user experience on Tumblr will evolve on its own path.”

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