Tumblr will lose a majority of its product-minded staff by the end of this year, according to the CEO of the company that owns it. But despite a recently leaked memo quoting Tennyson’s “better to have loved and lost” line, the CEO believes they are “setting up Tumblr for success in this next chapter.”
Internet statesman and Waxy.org proprietor Andy Baio posted early Thursday what was, at the time, “apparently an internal Automattic memo making the rounds on Tumblr” to Threads. The memo, written to employees at WordPress.com parent company Automattic, which bought Tumblr from Verizon’s media arm in 2019, is titled or subtitled “You win or you learn.” The posted memo states that a majority of the 139 employees working on product and marketing at Tumblr (in a team apparently named “Bumblr”) will “switch to other divisions.” Those working in “Happiness” (Automattic’s customer support and service division) and “T&S” (trust and safety) would remain.
“We are at the point where after 600+ person-years of effort put into Tumblr since the acquisition in 2019, we have not gotten the expected results from our effort, which was to have revenue and usage above its previous peaks,” the posted memo reads. After quotes and anecdotes about love, loss, mountain climbing, and learning on the journey, the memo notes that nobody will be let go and that team members can make a ranked list of their top three preferred assignments elsewhere inside Automattic.
Later on Thursday, Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg confirmed the authenticity of what was an internal blog post and commented on sections of it. Mullenweg noted that “we’ve worked on Tumblr for four years with ~200 people full-time, and spent well north of $100M above revenue trying to turn the site around, but it hasn’t yet. That sucks, but I also want to recognized the effort of everyone who tried and gave their best.”
Mullenweg notes that the Tumblr team had been told “for over a year” that they could be switched from Tumblr to revenue-generating aspects of the company. Those switching will seemingly do so by the end of 2023. The Tumblr team had “actually been performing really well in their work,” but without profit-generating results. “We’ve also learned a ton working on Tumblr that I think will make our other products better,” he writes.
Mullenweg later posts what he says was the remainder of the post not visible in the original screenshot, regarding Tumblr’s future:
We are shifting from the mode of “surging” on Tumblr with tons of people to get it to exciting growth, to working on how we can run Tumblr in the most smooth and efficient manner. Pretty amazing things in the social and messaging space have been accomplished with small teams, so I’m actually quite curious to see a smaller and more focused Tumblr’s performance in 2024.
Mullenweg also notes that the original post contained details of Automattic’s planned acquisition of Texts.com, announced on October 24, and he thanks “whoever shared the screenshot” for trimming it to avoid that. In the comments (“Asks”) of his post, Mullenweg notes that, in contrast to negativity recently directed toward workers at Tumblr, the “artistic, supportive part of Tumblr is one of the best places on the Internet.”
“I’ve experienced moments of beauty and connection here that I haven’t anywhere else, and it’s why I love Tumblr deeply. It’s why the entire team cares, and we’ll do our best to support and allow that part of Tumblr to not just survive, but thrive,” Mullenweg wrote.
From two people to $1.1B, and now this
Tumblr started as the project of David Karp and Marco Arment, the latter of whom would go on to develop Instapaper and become a vocal Apple commenter and podcaster. The phenomenon of microblogging, or “Tumblelogs,” low-commitment personal blogs that contained snippets of text, images, audio, or other ephemera, were shaped into a product that launched in early 2007. The company was acquired for $1.1 billion in 2013, the largest acquisition of CEO Marissa Mayer’s tenure at Yahoo, with an unusual press release that noted Yahoo “Promises not to screw it up.” (Ars profiled a UX design leader at Tumblr around that time.)
“Yahoo may not have screwed Tumblr up,’ but it has hemorrhaged money,” read Ars’ next headline about Tumblr in 2016, soon after Yahoo wrote down another $482 million on its acquisition. Verizon gave Tumblr a try in 2017, acquiring both the microblog service and its parent Yahoo for $4.48 billion, adding AOL, and calling the whole thing “Oath.” Six months later, Oath unveiled its grand strategy: removing all adult content from what was, from the beginning, a rather sex-infused, LGTBTQ+-friendly, porn-tolerant site. Efforts to use automated content removal systems were so hapless as to generate mockery. By 2019, Verizon was actively seeking a buyer for Tumblr; Pornhub suggested its interest, if perhaps only for headlines.
Verizon offloaded Tumblr to Automattic in 2019 for purportedly less than $20 million, taking on 200 staff. CEO Matt Mullenweg at the time called Tumblr “one of the web’s most iconic brands,” and said he intended to maintain the adult content ban and hoped the site would complement Automattic’s other products, like WooCommerce, Jetpack, Longreads, and others.
Taylor Swift, government spooks, and art
In late 2022, Mullenweg tweeted that Tumblr app downloads were up 57–58 percent on iOS and Android. Around the same time, Tumblr brought back nudity but kept “sexually explicit images” at bay. A summer 2023 major redesign aimed to make Tumblr easier to use and brought it in line with the general look of other social networks. During a livestreamed Q&A about Tumblr in July, Mullenweg said Tumblr was losing $30 million per year.
Still, talking about Tumblr’s future in August 2023 on an Evening Standard podcast, Mullenweg seemed optimistic about its reach into younger markets, its vibrant LGBTQ+ community, some vague backend AI possibilities, and how a Twitter exodus could feed Tumblr’s regrowth. (Even if Tumblr’s users didn’t necessarily invite those users in.)
As quoted in TechCrunch, Mullenweg told the podcast that he considered Tumblr not so much a successor to Twitter, but a change of pace. “You often hear people say they want to do less social media, but you almost never hear people say they want to blog less… What is it about blogging, that they feel like adds to their life or is a valuable task, or valuable use of time, that maybe they’re not getting from more traditional social media? … Like I said, we’re making Tumblr for art and artists. I haven’t heard anyone say I’d love less art in my life.”
The cultural reach and cachet of Tumblr has long exceeded its business prospects. Taylor Swift superfans (Swifties) hold in high regard the time in 2014 when Swift reblogged a fan account and went on, at length, about just how much she loved the fall season. Edward Snowden’s leak of highly classified documents in 2013 spurred government surveillance higher-ups to create an “IC on the Record” tumblog, a very odd fit that somehow continues to this day. Countless artists, models, writers, and other creatives, along with endless memes, got their start on a site that will always be difficult to explain to those who haven’t experienced it.
This post was updated on Novomber 9 at 6:55 pm ET to note Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg’s post acknowledging the leaked memo’s authenticity and his response to it. The headline was also changed.