20 May 2013

Can Yahoo find a place for Tumblr?

The big tech news of the day is that Yahoo's board has approved a $1.1 billion cash deal to acquire the blogging platform Tumblr  This deal, should it go through as is expected, represents an interesting about-face for Yahoo.  After all, this is a company that has shuttered a number of services focused on publishing user-generated content in recent years, including a blogging platform (360).  Thus, it’s no surprise that the rumors of this acquisition have been greeted with a good deal of skepticism.  In many ways, Tumblr does not on the surface appear to be a very good fit given Yahoo’s corporate culture.  Tumblr is a freewheeling platform where web comics, animated GIFs, adult content, teenage angst, and political activism have all found a home.  One could argue, based especially on its diversity of content (and the animated GIFs), that Tumblr is the GeoCities of the 2010s, but Tumblr is an even freer environment than GeoCities was, especially given that Tumblr bloggers can monetize their content.  Traditionally, Yahoo has frowned on adult content and barred users from making money using their platforms.  Yahoo also skews old while Tumblr skews very young.  That’s a reason FOR the acquisition from Yahoo’s perspective, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be a severe culture clash coming down a line.      

If there’s any reason to be hopeful that this acquisition just might work out, it’s Yahoo Voices.  That, too, is a service that specializes in user-generated content and was the result of an acquisition (Associated Content).  Essentially, it’s an article and video site powered by contributions from users.  For years, I would just about never run into Yahoo links on search engines apart from news stories on occasion.  Thanks to Yahoo Voices, those virtual encounters happen much more often now.  The actual material posted on the site varies widely in quality, as is to be expected.  From where I sit, though, it seems like a fairly successful site for Yahoo (though I have no clue as to whether or not it is a financial success).  The Voices comparison is even more appropriate when one considers it is an earning platform for writers and video creators.  I have a hard time imagining the Yahoo of 5 or 10 years ago running such a site.  Perhaps Yahoo really is changing.   

Arguably, Yahoo’s best chance at pulling off a successful Tumblr acquisition would be to let the site run more or less independently.  The fewer the changes, the smoother the transition will be for users.  Let some unconnected Tumblr users a year from now still not realize there was an acquisition because the site from their perspective works just as it always did – that’s the hallmark of a successful acquisition!  On the other hand, Yahoo does want to profit from acquiring Tumblr in some way.  The platform could no doubt be better monetized, but this will have to be done with subtlety to avoid angering the user base.  Tumblr as a company was extremely reluctant to monetize precisely because it realized its users might revolt at a wide deployment of ads or a sudden focus on paid services.  If nothing else, Yahoo hopes to be linked with Tumblr in the public mind – the corporate overlord also wants to be perceived as cool, hip, and young or at least as cooler, hipper, and younger than it was before the purchase.  It wants to be a company which is believed to have a vision and a mission, a business which makes moves with purpose and must be taken seriously.  In short, Yahoo wants to be relevant again – a true giant on the Web.  I wouldn’t necessarily bet against them.