Billion dollar purchase heralds shift to users creating their own active content, writes Jenna Wortham.
Yahoo's proposed $US1.1 billion acquisition of Tumblr is a huge coup for the young founder of the even younger start-up and a splashy move by Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer to shake up her company.
It also heralds a larger shift in social media. Facebook probably invented modern social networking and is still the king. But increasingly its approach is seen as passive and outdated as people flock to sites such as Tumblr where they can be more actively engaged in creating personal, expressive content to share - and which could potentially translate to advertising dollars.
"People love a stage or a pulpit from which they can broadcast," Shyam Sundar, of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University, says. "The genie is out of the bottle. Everyone loves it and it's very seductive for users to get online and be a source of content, rather than just consuming passively."
This is behind the appeal of sites such as Tumblr, where millions have created signature blogs; or Reddit, the news aggregator, which is encouraging users to make and upload video content to share; or video sites such as YouTube. There's also Vine, a Twitter app that allows people to easily make and post six-second videos and has been wildly popular since its debut in January. One of Vine's creators, Dom Hofmann, says its initial success was "rooted in the simplicity of the tool".
Snapchat, the messaging application, which lets people add text or draw cartoons on top of photos and videos, is processing about 150 million images each day. And Instagram, which Facebook acquired last year, has attracted more than 100 million users in its short lifespan - letting people add vintage effects and other filters to their photos.
The more services such as Vine and Tumblr can "come up with ways to let people control and generate content and project identity" the more successful they will be, Sundar says.
But these sites have not yet proved they are moneymakers, which makes Yahoo's move a big bet. And as much as Tumblr's sale can be seen as a success story for the company, it also hints at the struggles of a social media service rich in users and nothing else.
Plus, Facebook is still a force to be reckoned with. The company has a billion-plus users and generated $US5 billion in revenue last year. But except for the Instagram acquisition, Facebook has been slow to introduce tools to let members make and create interesting content beyond uploading photos and videos.
The result is that it has evolved more into a social directory, a kind of yellow pages of the internet, where people spend time tending to their public image and endlessly tweaking security settings to keep their party pictures private. And signs have begun to emerge suggesting users are becoming bored and disenchanted with the site.
People have so many news feeds, sites, apps and in-boxes competing for their time, says Kim Celestre, an analyst with Forrester Research, that the sites and services where they are active participants are more likely to hold their attention for longer, attracting advertising dollars. Tumblr says its members spend 24 billion minutes on the site each month.
"Big marketing campaigns are looking to bring people into their brand and immerse them," Celestre says.
Tumblr has not yet made much money. It made its priority the sale of premium products, such as designer "themes" or formats for blogs, and sponsored content over advertising, neither of which were enough to push it into a net profit.
People such as Kyle Williams, a 32-year-old designer who lives in Manhattan, have found themselves drifting away from Facebook in favour of creative tools that encourage them to make things, rather than share every bit of minute detail about their lives.
"Facebook is dying in my social media calendar," Williams says. "I hardly tap into that any more. It's just so expected and just what my friends are doing. There's something about the creativity of strangers on these other platforms that seems more interesting and creative, even more than the people I know in real life."
Williams says he prefers Vine, Twitter's new video tool, over all other social media services.
David Karp, the 26-year-old founder of Tumblr, says he does not view his microblogging service as a social networking service. Instead, he sees it as a creative technology, like Adobe, which makes Photoshop, among other things, or like Dell or Apple. Each time the company adds a creative functionality, such as the ability to upload GIFs or panoramic photos, usage explodes, he says.
"Most of the media we enjoy is increasingly fuelled by an army of independent creators," Karp says.
The 300 million people who visit the site each month come "not because their friends are here", Karp says. "It's because the content they want to consume and make is here."