Tumblr Adopting Twitter's Force-Feed Tactics

Bob Leggitt | Thursday, 17 December 2015 |

Tumblr instant messaging

Tumblr makes changes on a fairly perpetual basis, and I'd be among the first to express that some changes have been a big improvement. The revamp for images in Text Posts, for example. The pop-up text formatting toolbar; the proper integration of h2 headings for Photo Posts... All great steps forward. And there were other improvements Tumblr could have implemented, which would have encouraged and driven ahead creativity, further improved the site’s optimisation for the search engines, and helped to reward the people who are providing the most valuable commodity on the Web: original content.

But Tumblr has, of late, also been adopting some of the force-feed tactics which characterise the site I'm guessing is now its idol: Twitter.


Force-feeding site users is part of life on the Internet. A lot of the Internet's funding comes from advertising, and whilst it would be silly to pretend that most of us don't find at least some ads annoying, we understand that in a broad sense, alongside tracking and data-sharing, advertising is something we have to accept if our use of the Internet is to remain free.

But where should the line be drawn on the force-feeding of actual content? Well, many would say it's at the point where we start to feel our privacy is being invaded. The point where we lose control of things we believe we should be able to control. On sites where we log in as recognised users, this is particularly apposite, because there's a relationship between us the users, and the website. Yes, we know it's a free service, and we are the product, and all the rest of it, but we don't have to use the site, so it matters how we feel.


We've seen, with social media's often brash conduct and disregard for privacy, that our idealism as users can quite easily be dissipated by our overwhelming egotism. Of course we don't want our every move tracked, monitored, stored and sold on to 'carefully selected' partners. Of course we don't want the world to know we've only got 8 Twitter followers. Of course we don't want random spammers to be able to spam us. But we accept all of these privacy compromises because our desperation for attention and ego massage is much greater than our aversion to privacy invasion... Up to a point...


There's a final straw for every user of social media or UGC (User Generated Content) sites. The ideal situation in most of the sites' eyes is to position every user just short of their breaking point. Balancing privacy invasion with user retention is the key to success. But it's a dangerous game, because social media is highly competitive, and the speed with which a userbase can flock from a genre leader to a rival is sometimes devastating.

Once upon a time, MySpace ruled the world of social media. But Facebook snatched its crown and now MySpace is barely ever mentioned. And indeed MySpace itself had dislodged the previous king of the social web - Friendster. SM giants can, and have, become has-beens. Pushing users' tolerance is fine. People WILL accept changes they don't like. on a one-by-one basis. But in a compound sense, those changes mount up to form a picture, and when that picture becomes too ugly, or just not sufficiently attractive, users will start looking for alternatives...

Many of the decisions Twitter has made in more recent times have, in my opinion, been bad ones. But Twitter can get away with mistakes more easily than some major sites, because it's entrenched in the media.

Switch on the TV, and you probably won't have to wait long before someone says: "Find us on Twitter", and provides an account address. It really doesn't matter how awful Twitter is as a site (and it is an awful site in many respects) - it's getting daily media promotion. And that daily promotion is why, arguably, Twitter should be growing at a much faster rate. Even with the constant stream of second-nature advertising, Twitter's userbase is barely growing. Even the management themselves have expressed disappointment.

But one thing you almost certainly won't hear when you tune into the next news bulletin, is: "Find us on Tumblr". Tumblr, then, has to rely much more heavily on its real benefits for growth, and that means it can't afford to make the kind of mistakes Twitter is able to weather.


Earlier this year, Twitter introduced a so-called 'Instant Timeline' concept, in which users who declined to follow a certain number of accounts would be forcibly fed tweets of the site's choosing. It's a terrible idea. Patronising, unnecessary... and it hasn't, by all accounts, been very successful.

The system is seriously flawed too. I experimented with Twitter's 'Instant Timeline', and found that if I repeatedly blocked all the accounts whose tweets it forcibly served me, the software evertually got desperate and started to present some dodgy accounts. When I say dodgy, I don't necessarily mean sexual or rude (although things were straying into that territory). The greater problem was with content thieves. Twitter was force-feeding me accounts well known (by Twitter as much as anyone else) for repeated content theft. I thought that was disgusting.

Twitter instant timeline
Above: Twitter's 'instant timeline' force-fed tweets from accounts which contained mature content. This one was even marked "18+ Only". I didn't investigate this account any further, and I'm not making any untoward accusations (indeed the user has been conscientious enough to mark the account as mature). But the point is that Twitter didn't seem to know what it was potentially presenting to new users, and if you can't properly control an 'instant timeline', it shouldn't be there. Tumblr's 'instant timeline', meanwhile, appeared to ignore blocking altogether...

Tumblr has also now implemented this moronic and staggeringly patronising idea, and Tumblr seems to be treading more aggressively than Twitter, in that even accounts I blocked continued to appear. I checked that all blocked accounts were on my block list, and they definitely were. So why are these blocked accounts still showing in my Tumblr 'Instant Timeline'? It comes across as highly disrespectful.


But that's not all. Tumblr has now chosen to take another leaf out of the Twitter book of oppressiveness, pander to spammers, and give its users less control over internal messaging.

The move has been rose-tinted courtesy of its bundling with a new feature: Instant Messaging. Tumblr did already have more than one means of internal messaging, but importantly, communication was invited by the user controlling the blog, and not forced upon anyone. Once the user had disabled (or just chosen not to employ) any contact features, no one could send them a message on Tumblr. It didn’t matter who was following whom – if those were the settings the user selected, he or she would not receive any contact.

But sneaking in through the Trojan Horse of Instant Messaging, there’s been a downgrade in privacy control. And now, just like on Twitter, you cannot follow another user on Tumblr without accepting their direct messages. In fact, if you don’t amend your settings, it’s even worse than that. Tumblr enables the acceptance of Instant Messaging from ALL users by default, so if you want to limit the messages only to people you follow, you actually have to go into your settings, and block IMs from random users, per blog.

To do this, select the Settings option from your main menu, then select the individual blog for which you want to reclaim at least some privacy, then set that blog's Only allow messages from Tumblrs you follow toggle as shown below. Again, you need to do this for every individual blog…

Tumblr restrict instant messages

Tumblr had previously been using the Twitteresque lure of celebrity interactivity to bait users into action on the Dashboard. Twitter has arguably made its fortune from the lure of celebrity, but in order to really exploit the public’s insatiable compulsion to matter to the important and famous, the site has had to operate an oppressive privacy arrangement, and basically force all users to accept targeted messages from anyone and everyone - until they take the active step of blocking.

Here on the doorstep of 2016, we tend to be so desensitised to terrible privacy on the Internet, that Twitter’s enforcements have come to be regarded as perfectly normal to most of its users. But forcing users to read spam (which is what Twitter tacitly does) is not perfectly normal, and nor is it acceptable.

Tumblr has not descended to the depths of Twitter… yet. But the steps taken so far look like they could be the thin end of an ugly wedge. Indeed, Tumblr has cast hints on its support blog that there's more to come in the way of interactive features. There's nothing at all wrong with interactive features per se, obviously, but if you can't disable them, they extend beyond interactivity and into privacy invasion. And let's not pretend the menace of spam is an inconsequence. If you use Twitter you'll know what a nightmare following users can be. Follow as few as 30 accounts which seemingly share your interests, and your DM box is full of spam links within the hour. It's a joke, it discourages following, and worst of all in commercial terms it adversely affects our desire to use the site. I spoke about this problem in my Soundcloud Spam article, and the reality is that it's not just bad for the recipients of spam - it's bad for would-be spammers too.


I know some people will be thinking I’ve lost my marbles, and will be saying: “Just unfollow anyone whose messages you don’t want!”. But why should people's follow selections be governed by this? And what about those who are, out of politeness, already following four digits of accounts, including those of marketers and Soundcloud spammers, and who are now potentially facing a deluge of “Hey! Check out our shit!” messages. Why can those people not have one simple button that saves them the work and hassle of eliminating or having to tolerate spam?

And let's not forget the minority group who are constantly overlooked by the Internet - people with extreme introversion and/or social phobia. Again, I know some readers will be questioning that… “Social phobia?… You don’t have to actually reply to the messages, or even read them…”. But anyone who’s been through this type of anxiety will know it’s rooted in a dread of other people's negative reactions. Just knowing the messages are there causes discomfort, because socially hypersensitive people assume messages will be negative, by default.

Tumblr has always been a safe haven for users with introversion or social / self-esteem concerns. It scores highly, for example, in having no Downvote button, which on other platforms proves greatly discouraging for those with low confidence. But Tumblr is now moving away from that calm comfort zone, I feel, and heading for the 'he/she-who-shouts-loudest-wins' territory of Twitter.


Looking at the situation from a business angle, this messaging system could be a big commercial step for Tumblr. It promises to promote greater interactivity and site use, as well as potentially improving the prospect of mining more valuable data as users get into personal conversations with each other. But the lack of a Disable button, and the fact that universal receipt of messages was introduced as opt-out rather than opt-in, shows what I feel is a crass attitude on the part of Tumblr.


After a very cautious start, I came to appreciate much of what Tumblr facilitates, and there's no denying that as a blogging platform it still has a lot to offer. But I think Tumblr is starting to lose sight of its core appeal and head into areas that are not only well established elsewhere, but are also destructive if not implemented on a basis of individual choice. Tumblr led by setting the trend. Now it's becoming the copycat, and it's not even copying the best ideas.
Bob Leggitt
Bob Leggitt is a print-published writer, multi-instrumentalist and twice Guitarist of the Year finalist, Google-certified digital marketer, image manipulation expert, virtual musical instrument builder, "Twitter detective", and author of successful blogs such as Planet Botch, Twirpz and Tape Tardis. | [Twitter] | [Contact info]