I read a social media study yesterday from a research agency which had my eyebrows rising a bit. It was a global study talking about people’s awareness and usage of various platforms, and it seemed very compehensive. It talked about Facebook and Twitter, it examined the Pinterest phenomenon, it had a good secton on V-Kontakte, and it delved down as far as almost-forgotten networks like Ning and Bebo. So that made one of its omissions even more glaring.
No Tumblr. Not a mention. Not in the graphs, the analysis, nowhere.
Was I surprised? A bit surprised, but on reflection I realised that researchers (and marketers to some extent) still almost never talk about Tumblr. The ones who do are usually on it. There is a Tumblr-sized blindspot among researchers and because Tumblr has been steadily growing for years the blindspot is getting bigger and bigger. Even social media gurus and snake oil merchants leave it alone - there are almost no infographics about Tumblr, compared to REAMS on the similarly sized Pinterest (whose growth, unlike Tumblr’s, seems to have plateaued). And it’s been this way throughout Tumblr’s history. It is the forgotten social network.
As a Tumblr USER, this isn’t a bad thing. I mean, I don’t WANT a Tumblr infographic crossing my dashboard every week. But as a researcher, it’s just weird. Let’s remind ourselves of why Tumblr might be interesting to marketers, researchers, social media trendsters, etc.
It’s big - not Twitter or Facebook big, but solidly second-tier, as big as Pinterest. It’s engaging - second only to Facebook on pageviews. Its demographic is juicy - skews younger than any of the other big networks, which given how much marketing jibber-jabber is spouted about DIGITAL NATIVES makes its oversight even more baffling. Dudes! Here they are!
And the main reason I love it - it’s incredibly rich, culturally - it’s an interest network (again, like Pinterest) so it’s full of passion, arguments, fandoms. And to get a little more specialised, the combination of that, and its demographics, and its scale means that it’s a really vitalnexus point for modern popular culture - the place where Reddit-style web culture and wider pop culture crossover and cross-pollinate.
I’m not saying everyone should be glued to it, but research people with an interest in social media, youth culture, pop culture etc. should absolutely care about Tumblr.
So why don’t they? I’ve tried to work this out and here’s what I’ve come up with.
CLASSIFICATION ISSUES: People think of Tumblr as a blogging platform not a social media service so it gets filed somewhere differently. But this is dumb. The mechanisms of Tumblr (followers/follows, sharing, liking, etc) are exactly the same as any other social network. It’s a social network.
INTERFACE ISSUES:Except it doesn’t LOOK like one from the outside - the way people experience Tumblr who don’t use it is as a series of funny blogs they’ve been sent to. And when you do use it the interface is - as everyone knows - TERRIBLE. Hard to search, hard to follow conversations in, full of half-implemented features, etc. But even so Tumblr is a social network because that’s how everyone on it uses it as.
GROWTH ISSUES:Tumblr never really had a J-shaped growth spurt, it’s grown steadily since it started and continues to do so. But that means there’s never been a hype moment where Tumblr was sexy and everyone read up on it and got a handle on what it was for (a la Twitter, Pinterest, etc.). So people don’t think of it as a big deal because it’s never been presented to them as a big deal.
NOT INVENTED HERE ISSUES: One of the wonderful things about Tumblr is that tech people aren’t really on it. Does Scoble have a Tumblr? Has he ever had one? I dunno. If he does nobody gives a damn about it. Most of the tech and social media people preferred Posterous, which was Tumblr with better features and zero culture, and eventually got bought by someone.
MARKETER FRIENDLINESS ISSUES:David Karp and hence Tumblr itself have had an uneasy relationship with marketing and advertising in general - in their gut, they don’t like ads much (I sympathise). But that’s not the only problem - the tools to get a handle on Tumblr as a whole, rather than slice-by-slice, either don’t exist or aren’t well-known. Tumblr is tough for a marketer or researcher to get a grip on - proving ROI, representativeness, etc. on much more marketer-oriented social sites is different, on Tumblr it would be a nightmare.
CULTURAL ISSUES: Its user-generated culture is Tumblr’s great strength but also still a barrier - it’s weird, it’s full of cats, people say “feels” not “feelings”, etc etc.
So there are reasons - many reasons, some fairer than others - why Tumblr doesn’t get the interest something like Pinterest (its closest equivalent) does. It’s the social media platform I use most, so I am a partisan - but I think this is a real shame. I’ve personally found it incredibly useful especially when researching people half my age, who, lets face it, I’m not that culturally attuned to any more. And thinking about how Tumblr works has really shaped my ideas on social media in general.
So - Researchers! Gurus! Charlatans! Stop ignoring Tumblr. That is all.