How open-source will Tumblr become?

ben profile image Ben Halpern ・1 min read

In case you hadn't read the news, Verizon sold Tumblr to Automattic. Verizon owned Tumblr after it acquired Yahoo! and Automattic is the company behind Wordpress.

The price was around 3m, a remarkable fall from the 1.1 Billion that Yahoo! paid just a few years ago. I assume part of the reason it was so cheap is that the ongoing maintenance costs of Tumblr might be large enough that it's a liability in and of itself and somebody needed to take it on. It's why cities will sometimes unload an old warehouse for $1 to someone willing to fix it up and incur the costs.

With all of this known, I'm curious if anyone has any thoughts about the future of Tumblr, as it's now owned by huge open source proponents.

Matt Mullenweg's blog post made vague mentions of plans:

In the underlying technology of our platforms, I think 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.

Tumblr strikes me as one of the most interesting platforms for the future of open source publishing and social networking.

We in this community are, obviously, interested in this kind of stuff.

Does anyone want to speculate how things will unfold? I'm excited!

Posted on Aug 13 '19 by:

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Ben Halpern


A Canadian software developer who thinks he’s funny. He/Him.


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The price-tumble is because Tumblr loses a ton of viewership when you implement a "no more porn or other adult content" policy. Verizon did a great job of wrecking the already-ailing properties it bought. :p


Huuuuge loss of value. I don't create adult content but I still had posts flagged by their bot because the hues in a picture were 'fleshy' or there was something vaaaaguely cylindrical. I swear I'm still blacklisted from showing up in search results on the platform, as well.


Yeah. That was a huge "understand your community" gaff.

Reminds me of when I was working for Digex "back in the day". At the time, as a smaller hosting-provider, a significant percentage of their hosting-customers were porn sites. These were sites that pretty much "just ran". You occasionally had to reboot the boxes, but deep troubleshooting wasn't generally necessary. More importantly, these sites' owners paid their bills on time every time. Reliable income-stream. Then, Digex got new leadership tasked with growing the company. That leadership wanted to chase the business of the companies that eventually became the dot-com bust. Part of that was getting rid of all that "disreputable" adult site-hosting. In exchange, we got high-maintenance customers who demanded root ...and demanded credits for being offline when they used that privileged access to utterly bork their systems. Went from lots of generic builds to lots of special snowflakes. Ultimately, went to lots of consistently-paying customers to customers that ran up tens of thousands of dollar bills per month ...that frequently never paid (even though sales had already booked that billing and paid out commissions, bonuses, etc). Yes, a (very ugly) day of reckoning came, all because they didn't understand what they had or what they were chasing.

HUGE misunderstanding of the community.

This is very interesting! I used to do work for a porn website and they were also very quick to pay their bills. Hasn't it been said that porn has driven innovation on the web and with cell phones? XD

Yeah: they also tend to be a lot more security-conscious: if you're going to pick up driveby malware, it's more likely to be from your neighborhood church's web site than a porn website.

There's lots of money in porn. If you're operating a site, you tend to avoid things that will interrupt access (like failing to pay bills on time) - since doing so will interrupt your income - and avoid things that will antagonize your users (since potential users have a lot of choices on where they can scratch their itch).


It's remarkable how knee-jerk and sweeping the whole thing was. I think shared content platforms are a delicate concept, one we try to have great care of with DEV. Not an easy task to get right, but inherently deserving of thoughtfulness.

Verizon just decided to take a sledgehammer to a problem that deserved tweezers.


That's been the Verizon way since at least the Bell Atlantic days.

I still remember when I was offered a great job with a UNIX vendor (and another, larger, more technologically-interesting hosting-company) - at a considerable bump. My manager came to me and said, "I'd love to be able to offer you enough to keep you here, but the rules hold me to offering you a maximum of a 10% bump," ...which worked out to about $4K vs. the $20K I was being offered to do more interesting work. I mean, I wouldn't have stayed, even more due to the nature of the new position than the pay-delta, but just illustrates a history of not understanding the market(s) they were trying to play in.


Ok. Here are some of my speculations:

  1. Tumblr users will systematically migrate to WordPress.

  2. WordPress will inherit some of the popular themes and features like Online Theme Editor etc. from Tumblr. Coincidentally both are PHP based product.

  3. Tumblr will be scrapped. Might be open-sourced which will have no value now as its codebase and technology stack is still so 2007. Because of the acquisition after acquisition after acquisition, Tumblr unfortunately never evolves in terms of technology.


Tumblr, the user-facing blogging network, still appears to be fairly huge.

I imagine the preservation of these URLs is important to somebody and Automattic will want to build on all of this for some purpose.


1) I'm doubtful about the migration; half of the appeal of Tumblr is reblogging/sharing content other people have created, which isn't baked into WordPress. If WordPress.org built that sort of sharable content functionality into it, then maybe?

Tumblr creators have gone to:

  • Twitter
  • Patreon
  • Instagram

With adult content creators (a large base of Tumble users) mostly moving to Twitter and Patreon.

2) WordPress has already copied one aspect of Tumblr, ages ago, which is different media post types. Like image post, audio post, etc. but it didn't seem to really catch on with WP users.

3) This I could see happening. Eventually. Once they figure out how to milk as much value out of the user base as they can.


2) WordPress has already copied one aspect of Tumblr, ages ago, which is different media post types. Like image post, audio post, etc. but it didn't seem to really catch on with WP users.

Many of the "not what WP was originally meant to do" functionalities felt bolted on. There was also the "why use an emulation when native is already out there". Plus, if you were a low-effort user (which accounted for a lot of Tumblr's users), WP felt cumbersome (as many CMS-y systems do).


I hate IG so much. Tumblr was the place to share art.

  1. Tumblr users will systematically migrate to WordPress.

Amend that to "remaining Tumblr users" and, "sure, maybe".

That said, if you were someone looking for a WordPress style experience, you were previously already using WordPress, not Tumblr. Tumblr really excelled at "stream of consciousness" type of content. It filled a nice spot between FaceBook-style sites and Twitter-style sites without forcing people into the straightjacket that is Wordpress (and similar CMSes).


Oh boy! A topic from the area of the Internet where I actually spend my time and can add something to the conversation!

First, here's the best article on the subject. All quotes and insight are sourced first-hand via direct interview with Matt Mullenweg himself: poststatus.com/automattic-has-purc... -- I was present for parts of the conversation that formed this article. It was a special thing to witness!

The biggest questions that I've seen speculated, both here and elsewhere, are, "what are they going to do with it?" I think this article addresses that pretty well.

The most succinct summary:

  1. Move infrastructure off Verizon.
  2. Support same APIs on both WP.com and Tumblr.
  3. [Eventually] Switch backend to be WP.
  4. Open source [the] Tumblr.com client.

To address the title of this post, "how open-source will Tumblr become?" I believe the answer is "extremely." Automattic's most central tenet is the freedoms provided by open source.

This is a really beautiful acquisition that I think is going to work out extremely well for everyone on all sides. I can't remember the last time I felt that way about an acquisition, if ever. This one has so many upsides.

Cheers to everyone involved!


Maybe an Instagram competitor? I enjoyed Tumblr on mobile and you rarely encountered racism or cyberbullying. I hope they don't make it another WordPress tho. WordPress is beautiful in it's own way and merging it into Tumblr might just make the latter disappear altogether.


Depending on what corner of Tumblr you post in, cyberbullying has been a big problem in the past couple of years.


Was gonna say. Tumblr, while not quite {4,8}chan-like, definitely had its seedy underbelly.


I had no idea, been a while.i guess the internet just happened

Yeah. =\
Unfortunately, whenever there is an option to comment anonymously or it's easy to create an account we seem to get trolls.


I haven't the foggiest, but it's funny that this same thing happened with Delicious, which was once bought by Yahoo and is now part of Pinboard. (I don't think it was ever open sourced, but then Pinboard isn't Automattic.)


I remember del.icio.us! It used to be a great place to look at crowdsourced bookmarks for a given topic/keyword. I used to use it almost daily, as did a whole lot of other people. Then at some point, it sort of fell off of my radar for one reason or another. I'm sad to see that it died a death of acquisition, being ultimately shuttered in favor of the new owner's commercial offering in a similar space.

While absolutely legal, there is something sad about seeing a going (and growing) concern that employs quite a few people be bought and shut down in this fashion. Sure, the founders/current owners get a nice payout, but the rank and file of dedicated employees often get the business equivalent of a "Dear John" letter, and perhaps some unemployment, or perhaps not. Legal, but not always fully ethical or moral, in my book. And here's why I think this way: You ask your rank and file to believe in you, believe in your brand, and give it their 110% every day. You do everything necessary to pump up the valuation of your company, both to make it attractive to investors and to ramp up what you can ask for it. Once the sale is made, all of the "believe in the brand" BS is gone from your mind, as are your employees you leave behind (who still do believe in the brand).

You care so little about them that you do not take the time/bargaining position to write into the contract of the sale some protections for them from the new ownership, such as business operations will continue as they are for at least six months, to give people some time to find other employment at comparable level/salary. Very few business owners share in the largesse received from the sale of a software/internet company in the form of a bonus or profit share, unless that employee is also an investor in their publicly traded company because, as always, shareholders are the only people who matter in this world.

It's time for me to step back down off of my virtual soapbox here in a comment chain on a post that is tangentially related in subject matter at best. I love the internet and all of the wonderful businesses that spring up around it with a new idea or a better way to do a thing that, while failing to cure cancer or bring about lasting world peace, do make our lives incrementally better every day, or bring us some measure of joy, happiness, or just plain old contentment. When done poorly, whether in concept or execution, they die a natural death in the business world, and their passing often goes unmourned. But when they are performing, and do provide the aforementioned services for us, especially when they do it for free or a very nominal fee, to see them be killed off suddenly due to a much larger competitor's ability to just purchase their smaller competitor outright seems to me to be unfair, and in some undefinable way slimy and shady.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.


While I'm not familiar enough with the business details of Delicious, I don't disagree with much of what you said in the general case.


Automattic is retaining the Tumblr staff so let's see how it goes from there.


Yahoo made many of the same mistakes when it bought Flickr which used to be the premier photo-sharing site. They changed account terms and completely changed authentication which alienated a lot of users. They replaced the mobile version with something far worse. They downplayed the social aspects of a huge and thriving community and focused on making it just a photo dump site. Many of the leaders and most popular members wrote long, impassioned letters explaining their love for the platform and what Yahoo could do to keep or woo them back ... and they were completely ignored.
It was an enormous and bewildering squandering of customer loyalty. Flickr still exists but is not as vibrant a place since people can "dump" their photos elsewhere.

How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet


I'm surprised the degree to which Yahoo is still around. They had a directory that was nice and fun in the early days of the web, and a mail client that was pretty acceptable until Gmail showed up. But after that, it's just a bunch of acquired properties which they mostly run into the ground. I guess they have a news site?


I've already done a few exports into Hugo and static sites, locally, for backing up posts via their API. Just about everyone I know already hacks their tumblr theme.
You can already add Google Analytics but a GTM container isn't something that's easy to do.

I suspect what we're going to start to see is Tumblr Labs being taken over by plugins!
In the past, I've used Greasemonkey and an independently made add-on for Chrome that let me futz about with functionality in Tumblr. It'd be nice to affect functionality without having to hack JS to do it.


You can export your Tumblr into Hugo?

BTW. Do you know how to share stuff that I like from IG to Tumblr?

I've used Tumblr for art and photography now it's a desert. Photography has moved to IG which is a horrible place to appreciate pictures.


Just regarding the price tag, it's probably not actually $3m. Even the source article states:

A source familiar with the deal puts the price-tag "well below" $20 million, while another source puts it below $10 million.


Yeah, we don't know the details.

But suffice to say that this deal by Yahoo! was a disaster. It's similar to both the YouTube and Instagram acquisitions in approximate cost.


It's kind of incredible that they managed to do so much damage to Tumblr's value. Then again, it's Yahoo. If anyone can do it, it's them.


This reminded me a game we used to play when we were kids. You take an empty Kinder egg and put carbonate in one half, and squish some drops of lemon on the other half. You close the egg and start throwing it to each other like a ball. Eventually it explodes in one's hands leaving some white stains on your clothes.


Ouch ... so painful and so embarrassing:

"The 1.1 Billion that Yahoo! paid just a few years ago"

Epic FAIL ... embarrassment ... 1.1 BILLION for an already marginal blogging platform ... corporate incompetency to the max.

And now Yahoo is history. This was during the reign of Melissa Mayer? Once a highly esteemed and respected businesswoman, she fell deep, very deep. Classic example of corporate hubris and being totally out of touch with reality.

In the big corporate world there's no penalty on incompetence, they're worse than government bureaucracy.


It offers no killer features. It'd one more social media platform. These survive entirely by the environment they create and by the backing of the company behind them. The company destroyed the community of Tumblr, and are now backing off it's promotion.

Unless a financial benefactor gets involved, it's a dead platform and dead technology,


I don't know what if anything will become of Tumblr. Re. the OP's question of whether Wordpress acquiring Tumblr would result in Tumblr source going open, I don't see why it would. Wordpress has thoroughly reinvented itself away from being the open source alternative to Blogger, in exchange for being the voice whispering in everyone's ear "you don't have the luxury of not monetizing your hobbies." So gifts of code to the public domain are about the last thing I'm expecting. Probably just means a more slick and commercial (and slow and high bandwidth) Tumblr-like look and feel for Wordpress websites, probably under Wordpress branding, since Wordpress Developering is already quite the cottage industry. Maybe they're trying to add a dose of artistic temperament and countermainstream appeal to the Wordpress developer community and culture.


I had photos of animals flagged as adult content... I love the flow and usability that Tumblr has. But the community side of it just vanishes a few years ago.


Why do you think it's an interesting platform? What makes it so interesting?


I think Tumblr will go the way of MySpace. While still a site out there is cyberspace, it will not be as relevant as in its heyday. All for the best, Tumblr was a toxic environment.