Please read this article in conjunction with the important UPDATES I've made since the original publication. The links for the updates are below...
Tumblr 2013 vs Tumblr 2011 - Into the Yahoo! Era (August 2013)
New Tumblr TOS - Better or Worse? (March 2012)
Tumblr is no ordinary blogging platform. When I registered to use it, I’d seen it described as a blogging platform, but knew very little else about it. It turned out to be very different from what I was expecting, but gladly, I learned the important stuff before adding content, and was therefore able to avoid getting into a situation I was unhappy with.
This is not to say that Tumblr is bad for everyone, or necessarily bad for me. It suits some people down to the ground. For others, however, it’s entirely unsuitable. It just depends what you’re looking for. In this piece I want to document some of the things I’ve found out about Tumblr, through the eyes of a more traditional type of blogger.
WHAT IS TUMBLR?
Tumblr can perhaps be seen as a cross between Twitter and a standard hosted blogging platform. Some people describe Tumblr as a micro-blogging facility, but it’s not specifically so. It doesn’t have a limited number of characters per post like Twitter, and you can write full articles on it, just as you can with Blogger or Wordpress. Tumblr’s micro-blogging reputation comes purely from the fact that a large contingent of its members use it to micro-blog. But it’s a micro-blog by choice – not by order.
The interface is very simple to use, and offers different posting options to suit the type of content being posted. For instance, if you're posting a quote, the text is automatically enlarged, and a speech mark appears to emphasise the nature of the post. If you're posting audio, it gets its own stream player within a Tumblr Audio Post. I really like the way different post types and media are handled in Tumblr. As well as giving each type of post an identity and a most suitable format, it breaks up the look of the blog and gives it visual variety. It varies from one theme to the next, but in general the way Tumblr automatically formats your work is logical and aesthetically attractive. There's no denying that the process of posting material on Tumblr is a joy.
One way in which Tumblr is very similar to Twitter, is that it has a timeline. When you log into your main Tumblr Dashboard, you see a display of the posts from people you're following, in chronological order - newest at the top. Other blogs send the content from bloggers you're following to your email address using RSS. I prefer the way Tumblr does it. It keeps your email clear for emails, and keeps Tumblr 'within the walls' of Tumblr.
I like Tumblr better than Twitter in the sense that you can make yourself non-solicitable to other members. On Twitter, anyone you follow can potentially Direct Message you, and even those you don't follow can publicly message you. On Tumblr, you can follow people simply to read or view their Tumblelogs, without having to accept any messages from them. You decide whether or not you want to take messages or comments completely separately from subscribing to their posts. I'd be much happier with Twitter if it worked like that.
Another way in which Tumblr aligns itself closely with Twitter is in the way it motivates users to re-post existing material. What on Twitter is known as a retweet, is called a reblog on Tumblr. Using a button on the Tumblr menu, users can easily add someone else’s post to their own blog. The re-post links back to the original content, acknowledging the source. This system is exceptionally viral for those who contribute material of appeal to typical Tumblr users. If you post something everyone likes, it gets reblogged, and each time it gets reblogged, your own blog effectively gets a promo with a link. Then more people see your work and reblog it.
If you’re consistently good, the effect is a compound rise in interest, so your exposure on Tumblr can snowball very quickly if you contribute the right material. In fact, the vast majority of what’s seen on Tumblr is reblogged or picked up elsewhere on the Web, and only a small percentage is original. Interestingly, WordPress.com also has a reblog feature, but the culture on that platform is very different. There were strong protests when WordPress introduced the reblog feature with no means to disable it, and in general, WordPress has maintained its focus on original material. Whereas the typical originator on Tumblr sees reblogging as a route to increased distribution, the typical originator on WordPress is more likely to see reblogging as copyright theft.
Reblogging might seem lame in the extreme from an artistic angle, but it’s actually a very clever system from Tumblr’s own viewpoint. People don’t generally care about stuff unless it relates to them. If you’re a good writer, people probably don’t care. It’s depressing, but unless you’ve got something people want or need, they’ll probably ignore your work. Information (in the form of ‘How To…’ tutorials) is one of the predominant types of content attracting people to standard blogs. This kind of material relates strongly to readers because it enables them to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able. The reader gets a personal benefit if he/she reads the content. Of course, the writer doesn’t actually have to be technically good to provide information and give a reader some personal benefit. Your grammar and spelling can be abysmal, and your style can be in keeping with a malfunctioning bot, but if people can decipher it, and you’re telling them something they need to know, they may well see value in reading your blog. This is why some very badly written tutorial blogs on standard blogging platforms, can outperform some very well written creative blogs.
But what if you are a creator rather than a tutor? Well, Tumblr’s system recognises that people have to benefit personally from something in order to care about it. What the reblog button does, is makes people care about clever, funny, incisive or otherwise creative writing, creative photography, etc, because when they reblog it, it becomes part of their own blog – part of them. The system’s genius is in its ability to make other people proud of your work. They get to share in your pride, and in return you get a much higher level of interest in your actual creative ability. Your creativity doesn’t matter much to other people per se, but when they’re able to adopt it as their creativity, it suddenly takes on great importance. That, I believe, is the unwritten ethos of Tumblr.
That’s the upside. The downside is that once people start reblogging your work, it really is no longer yours. Debates have raged about Tumblr’s Terms of Service, with a focus on the technicalities of each paragraph – who legally owns your material, etc. But whatever the technical truth, the practical truth is that anything which gets extensively reblogged on Tumblr is a dead duck in commercial terms. And since the reblog function can’t be disabled, whether or not you get reblogged is not your decision. You’re still free to post your own work elsewhere of course, but I've seen nothing to suggest that reblogs of your work would be removed from Tumblr – even if you should close your account and have your original work ‘deleted’. I use the inverted commas around the word ‘deleted’, incidentally, because I’m not convinced Tumblr does delete the work per se. It may no longer be publicly visible on your Tumblelog, but whether Tumblr takes your original work off its servers, or other servers it uses to store media, is another matter. More on that later.
Even if you don’t intend to monetise your content directly, exclusive material can have big pulling power which attracts visitors, who can then be referred elsewhere for a more commercial proposition. Having your work copied multiple times destroys this pulling power and earning potential, and will very likely lead a large number of people to believe that you are the copycat, and that the copy they saw first is the original. Tumblr’s proliferation of your work will also have a highly negative impact on its SEO value should you wish to leave Tumblr and re-site your blog elsewhere. If you do use Tumblr’s undeniable viral qualities to raise your profile, then want to move somewhere which gives you more scope for monetising your ‘product’, you’ll really need to create new material, from scratch. You then need to bear in mind that if lots of Tumblr users know you and visit your new site, they'll often be people who are used to re-posting your work. Is the fact that your new site is not on Tumblr going to put them off adding your work to their Tumblelogs? In some cases, probably not. More on this in due course too.
I should just stress that Tumblr is well known for being Google-unfriendly as regards its users. To say that Google hates Tumblr may be a little over-enthusiastic, but it’s probably not an expression which would raise many eyebrows. Per se, the consensus is that your content on Tumblr is less likely to position itself highly in Google searches than the same content on other blogging platforms (despite an apparent claim to the contrary on Tumblr's intro page). Tumblr probably isn’t worried about this, and neither, I dare say, are the majority of its users. The core Tumblr user is not the originator, but the reblogger. Tumblr knows that Google isn’t interested in people who re-post existing content, and will therefore have been resigned early on to the fact that search engines would shun the reblogged majority of the content at the very least.
Tumblr claims in its intro blurb that it's as search engine friendly as can be, but when did you last do a general search on a topic and end up on someone's Tumblr blog? I can't remember a single instance. That doesn't necessarily mean Tumblr is engineered badly for SEO of course. In fact, looking through the CSS code of a couple of Tumblr themes, it looks to be getting pretty much everything right (within my limited SEO knowledge). So there is the possiblity that Tumblr posts don't typically rank high on Google because they so often lack detail and the content in itself is not Google-friendly. But it would be naive not to also consider that Google handicaps Tumblr because of its 'spammy' modus operandi. Whatever the truth, Tumblr makes up for any 'search engine scepticism' in viral drive. It’s just a different way of getting blogs found, and for some blog types, Tumblr’s viral power will be far more effective than Google ever could.
UPDATE: with regard to the above two paragraphs, please see the results of my Tumblr SEO experiment. The results seem to prove that if you use Tumblr for substantial, original, text-driven posts, and build external backlinks, Google has no problem whatsoever with a Tumblr blog.
‘DELETION’ OF YOUR WORK
Being excruciatingly cautious, I like to know how everything works before I use it. If I post a photo on Wordpress or Blogger, I want to know where the photo goes, and how I manage it after I’ve uploaded. What if I want to delete it? Not merely from the blog post – from the host’s server. Where do I go? What do I do?
Well, on Wordpress my pictures are hosted in Wordpress’s own Media Library. I go to the Media Library, find the photo I uploaded, send it to the Trash, then empty the Trash. This deletes the photo. If I’ve used that photo in any blog posts it will subsequently fail to show, because it’s literally no longer there. Ideally of course, I’d delete the photo from the blog post(s) first. Not that I make a habit of deleting photos, incidentally. This is 99% theory and caution.
On Blogger, directly uploaded photos are hosted at Picasaweb. To delete them, you log into Picasaweb, locate the pics, and click Delete. So with the native Wordpress or Blogger image upload systems, you have full control over your images, and can properly remove them.
On Tumblr, you can’t delete the images you upload. Yes, you can delete the images from your blog posts, but this doesn’t remove them from Tumblr’s image host, so if they get reblogged they're there for good. Also, with Tumblr Photo Posts, even if you hotlink to a photo you've hosted separately on third party file hosts, Tumblr re-hosts that photo. A re-hosted hotlink would mean that, once again, there would be no way to delete the photo from Tumblr in the event that it was reblogged. My experience has, however, been that if you hotlink straight into a Text Post, Tumblr doesn't re-host, so you can delete that image, and it will disappear from Tumblr. But please don't take that as a permanent and definite, and in any case there are problems with hotlinking to text posts. Not least, the photos don't show up by default in your followers' timelines. It's best to budget for the fact that if you put any photo into a Tumblr post, whether by direct upload or mere hotlink, you may not be able to delete that photo.
I’d suggest that if you're quite a hesitant, privacy conscious blogger, you think carefully before using your default Tumblr blog.
You can’t password protect your default blog (the first blog you set up), or delete it. It’s always publicly viewable for as long as you have your Tumblr account. This may not bother you at the outset, but there may come a point at which you want to temporarily protect the blog and stop public access (without having to delete it), or delete the blog entirely, without having to close your account. A good way to start would be to set up a second, password-protectable blog and leave your default blog unused. The default blog is important in that it's the one which identifies you when you 'follow' other Tumblr users. So it has to be held in mind that keeping the default blog empty will probably compromise your networking power, but I definitely feel new users should experiment using a protectable blog before jumping in feet-first with a permanently public blog.
TUMBLR & PLAGIARISM
One of the recurring views I’ve seen online (although this is not something which has affected me), is that Tumblr does not take content theft seriously enough. I can only go on what I’ve read, but it’s been said most vociferously that Tumblr does not necessarily close the accounts of members who repeatedly steal copyrighted content from other sites. The Terms of Service state that Tumblr will remove copyright protected content, and the ToS explains the process for victims of content theft to get their material removed. However, the ToS also tells Tumblr users how to file a counter claim, and states that if a counter claim is filed (disputing the copyright theft) the onus will be on the accuser to file legal action. Otherwise Tumblr will put the content back up. Tumblr's line about penalties for offenders is non-committal... "Tumblr reserves the right, at its discretion, to immediately terminate the account of any subscriber who is the subject of repeated takedown notices." This seems to support the claim that even when a subscriber repeatedly nicks content, their account will not necessarily be closed. And it certainly reveals that a content thief will be allowed to get away with more than one infringement before Tumblr starts to take it seriously.
Expanding on this plagiarism question (although it's evidently more than just a question), I found a fantastic thread on Flickr's forum, suggesting not only that Tumblr deliberately engineered its user tools to steal protected image content (in this case from Flickr), but also that Flickr was in Tumblr's pocket and was deliberately turning a blind eye when it had the power to make life much more difficult for Tumblr content thieves. Here's the link to the thread, but be warned, it's phenomenally long...
Given the culture on Tumblr (most of the content posted is not original, and re-posting others’ work is encouraged), it’s hardly surprising that some members will think it’s okay to take any content, from anywhere, and add it to their Tumblelog. Reading between the lines, I get the impression that Tumblr pays mild lipservice to the issue of content theft, but knows its business is basically built on pandering to the ‘secondhand content market’ and doesn’t want to send out a message which could be seen to discourage reblogging - whether from within Tumblr, or from other sites. Reblogging is the cornerstone of Tumblr, and a future for the platform without 'secondhand content' is very difficult to imagine.
If it wasn’t for the consensus that Tumblr is too lenient with plagiarists, and my own observations regarding privacy, I’d be quite a fan of the site. I think the reblogging thing is fine, provided you’re aware of the implications, and provided the content is only reblogged from within Tumblr. Indeed, to the typical Tumblr user, getting your work reblogged is the ultimate compliment, and for some, if you’re not going to get reblogged, there’s really no point in being there. I also think that Tumblr is a valid method for a creative content provider to raise his/her profile without having to pander to Google’s algorithms and essentially produce machine-readable material, post after post. There's also the fact that if you're comfortable coding CSS straight into Tumblr's code editor, you can actually make a Tumblr blog look damn good (here's an example), and you can put ads on it (not the case with Wordpress.com).
On the negative side, I think it’s already far too easy for people to steal copyright protected content on the web, and too many sites turn a blind eye. If Tumblr does only the very bare minimum to stop the theft of exclusive work, that’s a big problem. Regarding the privacy issues and content ownership, I think there should at least be a much clearer warning making users aware of the state of play before they start uploading material. Unless you were to read the ToS and privacy statements in depth before signing up (and let's face it, most people don't), you may have no idea that your first blog post was up for grabs to anyone who wanted it on their blog, and that in posting any material you were granting the right to Tumblr and its subscribers to basically do what they like with it. And you certainly wouldn't realise that some of your uploads could never be deleted.
Tumblr is a good concept, but I believe people should be much more clearly informed about what that concept is before they sign up.
I'm going to be experimenting with Tumblr more in the future, and I'll relate my experiences here on Planet Botch as I get more familiar with actually running a Tumblelog.